Iraq is reverting to its former freedom-less ways

As American troops withdraw from Iraq this summer, expect the democratic freedoms Iraqis have enjoyed in recent years to recede as well.
Already, the Iraqi government is restricting freedom of the press, expression and assembly. It’s toying with Web censorship, torturing political prisoners and killing political opponents.

Even with all of that, Iraq remains freer than every other Arab state, except Lebanon. The United States wrote democratic freedoms into Iraq’s constitution, including protections for women and minorities – offering as a tacit guarantee the active presence of 150,000 American troops. But now the guarantors are leaving.

A large part of the problem is corruption. Under American stewardship, Iraq has grown to be one of the half-dozen most corrupt nations on Earth.

“Significant widespread corruption” afflicts “all levels of government,” the State Department says.

Nothing can so quickly cripple a democracy as the need by the nation’s leaders to protect their cash flow and hide all evidence of their thefts. That leads, at least, to electoral fraud and press censorship. How can corrupt officials survive if the press is free to report on their misdeeds?

“We are controlled and censored,” said Faris Fadhil Sultan, a reporter for Al-Arabiya television in Iraq. “The government can exert its will on reporters through criminal charges or suspension from work — even kidnapping and killing.”

Iraqi reporters are intimidated into compliance — even when Western journalists found that government officials had embezzled $13 billion in American reconstruction funds. That is a tactical problem for Iraqi democracy. A larger, strategic, problem lies in the certainty of history.

After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration came up with the plan to bestow Iraqis with a great gift: democracy. Freedom!

But a nearly inviolable rule governs this arena: Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation unless its people and its leaders all are asking for it. Otherwise the nation’s oligarchy will fight to restore the old order of things, to protect their positions and perks. It happens every time.

All of that is made worse when sectarian divisions smolder under the heavy foot of an oppressive government — only to flare up once the government falls. Of course, that’s been a fundamental part of Iraq’s problem from the start.

Afghanistan, another state where Bush tried to bestow the gift of freedom, offers a vivid demonstration of this rule. Like Iraq, Afghanistan had no history of democracy — and dozens, if not hundreds, of unelected warlords who stood to lose everything if local leaders were elected. And, like Iraq, Afghanistan is thoroughly corrupt. Democracy there stands not a chance.

A generation earlier, the United States imposed democracy on Nicaragua after fighting the Contra war against the Marxist Sandinista government and its leader, Daniel Ortega. The country held its first free election, ever, in 1990. But Ortega, the ultimate oligarch, was still around. He manipulated the electoral system so he could win office with only 35 percent of the vote and then faked a Supreme Court decision exempting him from term limits. So much for democracy there.

The granddaddy of democracy efforts was Cambodia. The United Nations occupied the nation for two years in the early 1990s and staged elections in a nation that had been ruled by kings or dictators for all of time.

But the previous king and the rest of the oligarchy were still there. They all fought to undermine the election results as soon as they were announced and pulled the country back into dictatorship almost without pause. There it remains today.

The Iraqi people already hold their own leaders in such low regard that even two violent attempted bank robberies in the last week are raising eyebrows and malicious rumors — rampant speculation around the country that al-Maliki had engineered the attacks so that his minions could wipe out evidence of his fraudulent funds transfers, just in case he fails to return to office once the never-ending electoral-debate is settled.

As it is, the Iraqi people are well aware of how richly their leaders reward themselves, even before dipping into the till. Members of Iraq’s Parliament pay themselves $112,000 a year. The nation’s average income is about $2,200.

It seems all but certain. Another nation given a chance to be free is slipping almost effortlessly back into old patterns of behavior, as if drawn by inertia. Soon, after the Americans leave, the last vestiges of freedom will begin to disappear.

Joel Brinkley, a McClatchy Newspapers columnist, is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times now teaching at Stanford University. Contact him at

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