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NEW ERA: Iraqi security forces show their ink-stained fingers outside a polling station in Ramadi.
Azhar Shallal/AFP/Getty Images
NEW ERA: Iraqi security forces show their ink-stained fingers outside a polling station in Ramadi.

A lesson from Iraq

Iraq | The Middle East needs less talk about democracy and more about good government

Issue: "Effective compassion," July 27, 2013

Lukman Faily is a rare man in Middle East politics these days—an optimist.

Calling this month for a “new era” in U.S.-Iraq relations, the new Iraqi ambassador to the United States says “though most Americans probably believe that Iraqis are fed up with the U.S., the truth is that Iraqis appreciate what the U.S. has done and are looking for more U.S. involvement.” 

Come again?

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Not more sacrifice of blood and treasure, he wrote in a July 2 Wall Street Journal op-ed, but “more diplomatic, political, trade, investment and economic partnership.”

Truth be told, the 47-year-old diplomat has reason to be buoyant. For all the bloodletting and political upheaval in the region, good things are happening in the one place in the Arab world where the United States over the last decade has spent its blood and treasure.

In late June the UN Security Council voted unanimously to remove Iraq from Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. That means the end at long last to UN sanctions imposed on the country following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. It means longstanding issues with Kuwait—missing people, missing documents, destroyed property—largely have been resolved. Of $52 billion owed Kuwait in reparations, Iraq has paid all but $11 billion. Iraq may join again in global trade and finance, in associations, and in cultural exchanges.

And take a look at the most recent provincial elections in Iraq. While terrorist attacks in some areas drew headlines, here’s the other news: All political parties in Iraq have accepted that elections, particularly local elections, are the means to power sharing and change. This is a sign of democracy sinking its roots. Or, as Faily put it, “Iraqis are developing a culture of democracy.”

Take embattled Nineveh Province. When I reported from there in 2008 ahead of the last provincial elections, insurgents had killed 12 Nineveh council members leading up to elections. The rest had bodyguards and carried their own weapons. When I met with the governor of the province, he’d just escaped three bombing attempts, and just attended the funeral for his assistant. Christians, who represented a solid faction in Nineveh, could scarcely run for office. Kurds, long the region’s majority, could barely risk it either.

In 2013 elections held June 20, the Kurds won 15 of 39 council seats, making important gains against lead Sunni parties (including radicals and Muslim Brotherhood affiliates). Christians lost ground—moving from three seats on the council to one—but competed across parties this time rather than in their own religious parties only. 

Across Iraq there’s other good news. Oil production is rising, with a new pipeline through Jordan in the works. Iraqi Airlines took possession of its first of 30 Boeing aircraft, with the rest due later this summer. For two years Iraq’s GDP has been growing at a rate of nearly 10 percent. And consumer price inflation, which hit a high of 50 percent in 2006, dropped to 5 percent in 2012.

Faily is right to acknowledge, “It hasn’t been easy.” But after decades of dictatorship, three wars, international sanctions, and the deaths and displacement of millions of Iraqis, he can also legitimately say, “Iraq has begun to build a multiethnic, multiparty democracy with respect for the rule of law.” May it continue, and may violence decrease.

May it also give policymakers, political and military leaders, and the rest of us encouragement to look more closely at the Middle East, to see beyond the headlines and hashtags. It’s not all bombs and bloodletting. 

As we should have learned in Iraq and now face with Egypt, democracy is more than free and fair elections. (Christians living in America should well understand that liberty depends on so much more!) We should perhaps talk less about democracy and more about good government; less about Middle Easterners getting to vote and more about equality, rule by consent, building institutions that protect and include everyone under the law.

And above all, we should recognize that if the United States still has a lot to learn in the region, the lesson from Iraq is that it has a lot to teach, too.


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