Why Democracy in Iraq Will Never Be a Thing

Created: 13 June, 2014
Updated: 14 October, 2022
3 min read

Baghdad is on the verge of falling to Islamist rebels, and Americans are somehow surprised. As far as we knew, things were peachy in Iraq until sometime last week. More important than trying to figure out what is happening, however, we are trying to figure out who to blame.

Republicans, who have now completely abandoned the idea that America should present a united front to the world, immediately blamed Obama for pulling out of Iraq. Democrats, who seem perpetually incapable of taking responsibility for anything, rushed to blame Bush for starting the war in the first place. There is plenty of blame to go around, of course. But in this case, they are both wrong; we should blame the British.

When the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed at the end of World War I, Great Britain drew the fatal lines on the map for what would become the Kingdom of Iraq. Like most British creations at the time, Iraq was not supposed to be a democracy, but an outpost of the great British Empire -- upon which the sun never set.

Little attention was paid to the ethnic and religious divisions being grouped into a single country. And nobody knew much about oil.

And so, the modern nation of Iraq grouped together three very different regions: a Kurdish region in the North, a Sunni Arab region in the West bordering Sunni Syria, and a Shia Arab region in the West bordering Shia Iran. Current estimates are that between 55 percent and 65 percent of Iraq identifies with the Shia variant of Islam — a faction that, as permanent majority, controls and always will control a democratically-elected government.

And this is precisely why democracy doesn’t work in Iraq. This is another one of those things that

James Madison called correctly in Federalist #10, a document that teaches me more every time I read it.

Democracy cannot function effectively in the presence of a permanent majority faction. It will cease to be a participatory government of the people and become simply a majoritarian tyranny inflicting its will on minority under the cover of democratic elections. And the minority party will soon lose every incentive to participate in the government.

Imagine an America in which the current hostilities between liberals and conservatives were intensified by a factor of a thousand and passed on to each new generation through the genes. And imagine that one of these factions ALWAYS won every national election: always controlled the House, always controlled the Senate, always controlled the presidency, and always appointed the judges.

How long would it take for the other side to simply stop being willing to play the game?

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And this is what is happening in Iraq. It is an unsolvable conflict because it is built into the demographic fabric of the nation.

Saddam Hussein did not create this problem by being a brutal dictator. He was a brutal dictator because of this problem. As a minority Sunni, whose regime favored the Sunni minority, he could govern only as a tyrant. When America dismantled the tyranny of the minority in Iraq, we simply engineered the tyranny of the majority.

The ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is a fundamentalist, Jihadist, terrorist organization that wants to control Iraq and Syria and impose the harshest version of Sharia Law on its people. But it is also a Sunni organization promising power and influence to Sunni Muslims in a nation whose supposedly democratic institutions have presently shut Sunni’s out of any meaningful participation in the political process.

We should at least ask ourselves why anybody would choose democracy under circumstances such as these.

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