A French Revolution in Iraq?
While the Bush Administration considers revising its draft Security
Council resolution giving the United Nations a larger role in
rebuilding Iraq, France sulks on the sidelines.
Paris wants an early transfer of power in Iraq and rejects the
latest American offer as "a disappointment." Many in Washington see
French hubris at work, what Fouad Ajami of John Hopkins University
calls "France's fantasy of past greatness and splendor." If only it
were that simple. The deepest reason for the U.S.-French impasse
over self-government in Iraq is not geo-political, but cultural. A
contest of national identities is in play: one rooted in the
pragmatic and secular values of the Enlightenment, the other in the
moral traditions of Anglo-American democracy. The result is that
France and America embrace vastly different prerequisites for
self-rule in Iraq.
The original U.S. timetable for a new government in Baghdad was
roughly two years: a constitutional convention within a year, a
constitution within 18 months, followed by national elections. But
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin has said he wants
power transferred to a provisional government within a month (he
has added a few months to the deadline), with elections by next
Think about that objective in light of Iraq's recent history. For
the last 30 years, the nation has been run like a Soviet gulag.
Saddam Hussein submerged Iraq in state-sponsored fear,
bloodletting, torture and assassination. He exploited ethnic and
religious rivalries to create lasting animosities. He made a
starving population dependent on his manipulation of the U.N.
oil-for-food program. Millions of Iraqis -- the nation's best and
brightest -- fled as exiles.
What makes the French believe that a stable, democratic regime
could quickly emerge from this chaos? The French attitude to
popular sovereignty is part of the answer: Put power quickly in the
hands of the people (or, rather, the people you happen to like) and
all will be well. Under this view, political institutions matter
less than strong national leadership. The assumption is that
liberal government can function without a vibrant democratic
culture. As a French official recently put it: "You have to send a
political signal that Iraqis represent the sovereignty of their
That may sound soothingly egalitarian, but under the French
timetable it could easily mean a return to Baathist rule or the
functional equivalent: domination by Arab Sunnis, Saddam's power
base. Many of them would like nothing more than to hijack a
constitutional convention and terrorize opponents in an election
contest. The French plan might achieve "stability," but at the
price of strangling Iraq's infant democracy in its crib.
So far, George Bush and Tony Blair have taken a different view.
They've made the adoption of a homegrown constitution a crucial
objective in post-war Iraq. "We will help the Iraqi people to find
the benefits and assume the duties of self-government," President
Bush said earlier this year. "The form of those institutions will
arise from Iraq's own culture and its own choices." This demands a
patient process of civic education -- and debate -- that can't be
done on the cheap. America and Great Britain understand, based on
their shared political-religious heritage, that liberty requires a
civic and legal culture that respects basic human rights: freedom
of speech, freedom of religion, equality under the law. The genius
of Anglo-American democracy is that it recognizes the tragedy of
human nature, with its bent toward self-aggrandizement. Limited
government, the separation of powers, checks and balances,
representative democracy -- all pay tribute to the Judeo-Christian
doctrine of original sin.
France began its own path toward democracy by explicitly rejecting
this view. Unlike the American Founding or England's Glorious
Revolution, the French experience exulted in humanistic ideals
about man's potential. The immediate result was the orgy of the
guillotine, followed by a cynical regard for religious values and
institutions. "We will strangle the last king," cried the
revolutionaries, "with the guts of the last priest."
French nation-building assumes the values of secularism, with all
its rosy assumptions and real politik. It seems an especially
clumsy strategy in countries such as Iraq, in which the utter
blackness of human nature held sway for so long -- and threatens to
return. For all their noisy humanitarianism, secularists tend to
have a deaf ear to the religious sentiments that animate most
people in nations around the world.
The French agenda for Iraq calls to mind Edmund Burke's critique of
France's first experiment in self-government, circa 1790: "The
fresh ruins of France, which shock our feelings wherever we can
turn our eyes, are not the devastation of civil war; they are the
sad but instructive monuments of rash and ignorant counsel in a
time of profound peace." At this moment of relative peace in Iraq,
America and Britain would do well to reject this latest round of
rash and ignorant counsel from Paris.
Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a
free society at The Heritage Foundation, where Nile
Gardiner is a visiting fellow in Anglo-American security