A French Revolution in Iraq?


A French Revolution in Iraq?

Oct 21st, 2003 3 min read
Nile Gardiner, Ph.D.

Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow

Nile Gardiner is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow.
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 spring.

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 country."

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.

Joseph 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 policy.