USA Today recently ran an article reminding Americans of the importance of local and tacit knowledge. With Iraq no longer under the control of American forces, the population is struggling to understand and engage in the basic concepts of democracy, including political organization, law interpretation, combating international sabotage of the elections and so forth.
Why are Iraqis having such a hard time? There’s a great body of knowledge needed to grasp the nuisances of any political system. Iraqi citizens do not have access to this self-ruling knowledge because democracy was transplanted instead of grown. Because Iraq lacks any influential custom of democracy, trying to grasp it is a bit like trying to understand algebra without knowing how to multiply. America has democratic institutions that stretch all the way back to Ancient Greece. Iraq’s democratic customs stretch all the way back to last year.
People have memories and they often look to the past to help answer today’s questions. Iraqi citizens, for example, are afraid of expressing themselves because they are do used to be killed for it. And the problems don’t stop with this generation because they teach and talk to their kids. Twenty, thirty and forty years from now, Iraq’s rising leaders will still favor secrecy and religious texts over secularism and free speech. It’s possible it might even be worse than that. Assuming the “democracy” (is it really a democracy if the citizens don’t understand how it works or was forced on them?) lasts this long, the next generation might be worse at this crazy system than their parents because, like most people, they don’t like being told what to believe. (Especially when the order is “You have a right to choose...but you can’t choose that.”) So will they ever “get it?” There’s no way to tell but forcing it isn’t going to work. Instead of trying to manufacture a political system, America should try to grow it, making suggestions and offering foundation-building requirements, not demanding sweeping reforms. For example, paying groups of locals to police an area instead of paying them to act just like Americans troops among American troops doesn’t build communal relationships, reinforce trust between peoples and remind citizens that they won’t be shot if they say something disagreeable. Even having police officers instead of soldiers teach police work would do wonders.
Ordering someone to be more democratic is not only confusing, it’s hypocritical and illegitimate. Iraqis have to be let to learn for themselves and that includes letting them choose their own government, even if we don’t like it.