Democracy vs. Democratization (A Public Conciliation)

Yesterday, in class, we tackled one of the biggest questions of recent U.S. history. Why did the U.S. decide to invade Iraq in 2003? This question has been debated in all corners of the academic, public, and government worlds for almost a decade with many answers proposed. Some are unlikely, such as oil and corporate greed, some are plausible, such as security concerns and intelligence failures, and some are downright crazy, such as revenge for events in the 1990s and secret Israeli conspiracies. This subject is difficult for me, a veteran of the invasion, to approach because it is still difficult to separate my emotions from reason. Although I study Iraq extensively, both personally and academically, I purposely shy away from the above question.

However, yesterday I jumped into the fray and made an argument, probably a little too passionately, that ruled out democracy as a reason for the U.S. invasion. I was rebutted by my classmate, xmarkopolo. After class, I continued to think about xmarkopolo’s comments, as well as the general framework for the democracy argument, and realized that I may have been wrong…well…let’s call it half wrong. My mistake lies in semantics and highlights the importance of word choice within political science and international relations.

My argument was quite simple. I stated that if democracy in Iraq was the reason the U.S. invaded in 2003, than the U.S. would have invested much thought and capital in the creation of a democratization plan and would have been prepared for the events that quickly transpired after the fall of the Ba’ath party. Simple, right? If democracy is your goal, than you would do everything in your power to assure the outcome. Well, as is now well known, the U.S. did not possess a significant, or useful, plan for democratizing Iraq after the fall of Saddam’s government. In fact, it has been found, and widely reported, that the U.S. plan for security, stability, and transition was largely created on the fly. Therefore, I argue, because no significant plan existed before the invasion, it is incorrect to argue that democracy was the reason.

The counter-argument is also quite simple. The theoretical basis of U.S. incentive for democracy in Iraq rests on the idea that democracies are less likely to fight each other. A democratic Iraq would be less of a threat to actors in the region thereby freeing up military assets and political capital to focus on Iran. Further, a democratic Iraq may also harbor warmer relations with the U.S. and thereby increase the regional pressure on Iran. Finally, in the words of George W. Bush, Iraq would become a “beacon of democracy in the Middle East”. My colleague, xmarkopolo, pointed to the significant collaboration between exiled Iraqi politicians and U.S. policy makers before the invasion as well as popular ideas that a democratic Iraq would recognize Israel. Xmarkopolo is right, the evidence clearly shows that democracy was on the radar and probably a factor in U.S. policy decisions.

Well, we can’t both be right…can we?

Yes, and the reason lies in semantics. Democracy and democratization are two different things. Democracy is the outcome while democratization is the often long and drawn out process of building legitimate and lasting democratic institutions of government. Xmarkopolo is right, democracy may have been one of the reasons the U.S. invaded Iraq. But, I am right as well, the historical record shows that the U.S. was not prepared to undertake the process of democratization itself. Many policy planners believed that exiled Iraqi politicians and technocrats would simply slide into Iraq’s existing governmental institutions and the move to democracy would be undertaken by these Iraqi’s themselves. When those institutions crumbled and the country fell into chaos, it became clear that the U.S. never intended to democratize Iraq- they simply intended for Iraq to be a democracy.

So, I concede to xmarkopolo and will revise my argument. While democracy may have been a reason for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is likely that the U.S. never intended, and therefore never planned, to play a significant hands-on role in the democratization process.


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