Niall Ferguson: The possibility now facing Iraq is not of a democratic peace but a democratic war

[Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University]

... the forces bedevilling the Middle East today are fundamentally the same ones that tore Europe apart in the mid-20th century. If I had to offer a concise explanation for the extreme violence of that era, I would blame the three Es: ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline.

It was the ethnic diversity of populations, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, that made new nation states so unstable after 1918, as majorities lorded it over minorities, who in turn looked abroad for support. It was the extraordinarily erratic performance of the European economies in the 1920s and 1930s that drove millions to embrace extreme political ideologies, such as communism and fascism. And it was imperial weakness - British overstretch, in particular, but also the internal instability of the German, Austrian and Russian empires - that made full-scale war so hard to avoid.

Europe a century ago was the continent through which the world's biggest geopolitical fault-lines ran. Like the Middle East today, it had the allure of natural resources (coal and iron, not oil). Like the Middle East today, it had a rapidly growing population that was deeply divided along ethnic lines (though the majority were Christians, not Muslims). And like the Middle East today, it was where the tectonic plates of empire met.

The historical link from then to now is provided by the Ottoman Empire. As it metamorphosed into the Turkish nation-state we know today, the Ottoman Empire left behind it a litter of lost provinces. These the British and French sought to fashion into dependencies. Iraq, Jordan and Palestine (complete with "a national home for the Jewish people") joined Egypt in the British sphere of influence; Syria and Lebanon went to the French. Cleverly, the United States staked a claim in the region by backing the House of Saud in Arabia.

Many commentators like to blame all the problems of the Middle East today on these imperial manoeuvres, as if the British somehow invented the ancient fissures between Shi'ites and Sunnis, or wilfully encouraged Jewish settlers to colonise Palestine. In truth, the post-1918 order - which endured into the late 1950s - was successful in preventing Arab nationalism from becoming a source of support for the Axis powers during the Second World War. No small feat.

The subsequent American dominance of the region was based on an unlikely combination of special relationships with Wahhabism (Saudi Arabia) and Zionism (Israel). Though it managed to check Soviet ambitions in the region during the Cold War, the United States has struggled to keep the peace. There have been several small wars between Israel and the Arab powers. Defeated in battle, the Arabs have resorted to terrorism. Meanwhile, Iran has plunged out of control since 1979 and is now the principal menace to the stability of the region, sponsoring suicide bombers and spewing out anti-Semitism.

After the Iranian revolution, the Americans played the balance of power game, treating Saddam as a useful counterweight. But dissatisfaction with this murky strategy prompted the so-called neo-conservatives to devise a new strategy. The region could be stabilised (and Israel's security enhanced) by means of a forcible democratic revolution, beginning in Iraq. It was a strategy based more on political science than on history. The "democratic peace" theory states that two democracies are always and everywhere less likely to go to war with one another than two dictatorships or a democracy and a dictatorship. The neo-cons inferred from this that a more democratic Middle East would be a more peaceful Middle East. President Bush has trotted out this line in numerous speeches.

Last Thursday's election in Iraq is being interpreted in Washington as evidence that the neo-con approach may yet work. Certainly, the high turn-outs recorded - especially in the Sunni areas - are the nicest pre-Christmas present Mr Bush could have wished for. Moreover, opinion polls show that ordinary Iraqis are looking forward optimistically to a democratic future. Are Iraqis sorry Saddam was overthrown? Harold Pinter, please note: 80 per cent of people in the mainly Kurdish provinces and 58 per cent of people in the mainly Shi'ite provinces think the United States was "right to invade Iraq"; 70 per cent of all Iraqis approve of the new constitution and almost as many expect life to be better a year from now. Yes, two thirds want the Americans to go home. But most Americans feel the same way.

Yet history offers a salutary warning. Even a complete success in Iraq would leave an awful lot of non-democracies right next door, notably Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran. In any case, what the democratic peace theory doesn't tell you is the number of countries that have plunged into civil war in the aftermath of democratisation....

The United States wins in the sense that Iraq has now successfully held two elections and a referendum. But the US also loses because democracy lays bare the deep differences between Shi'ites, Kurds and Sunnis. You end up not with a democratic peace but with a democratic war as the Kurds take up arms to fight for independence, and the Sunnis do likewise to reassert their traditional dominance over the more populous and oil-rich Shi'ite provinces....

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Arnold Shcherban - 12/21/2005

Even the article author's wise caution against the euphoria on
account of the so-called democratic elections in Iraq is not cautious
First of all, the democratic
nature of any elections taken place
under active foreign occupation, and being essentially forced by the occupying powers historically never escaped the accusations of American
historians to be the fixed or/and undemocratic elections,... unless the latter happened to take place under the guide (or at least with an implied consent) of the USA.
Secondly, the regime under creation
in Iraq now is not democratic one and
can never be a democratic, since it is a religious (I would say fanatically religious) regime, not secular.
Thirdly, the current regime has already shown its ugly face in torture
(that's definitely much more widespread than it's been factually
proven by recent findings made public)
and killings of Sunnis minority by the
Shiite anf Kurdish majority out of religious motives, which comprises (and will remain so for the forseeable future) the core of the current regime.
And, thirdly, the 'war', i.e. civil and hardly 'democratic' one is actually already going on.
In fact, the regime that is forming in Iraq right now will be better than Saddam's regime in one way only -
it will be "friendly" to the US and UK; one can bet on this conclusion.

And one more "minor" discrepancy in the author's theory on the reasons of
the European instability/war after 1918, being communism and facism.
How about the instability before 1914,
with WWI followed it when there was neither communism nor facism?
Is it more accurate to analyze the both mentioned periods in terms of imperialistic competition between old
colonial powers and the pretenders to
that title? Isn't it the historically established fact that the strife for capital expansion to foreign markets, desire to control mineral resourses and of economic domination are the primary causes of the great majority, if not world-wide, then regional conflicts?