An interesting essay in Saturday’s Guardian: Our most dangerous export, by Amy Chua. Professor Chua presents a compelling case. Instituting universal suffrage on nations long repressed under the boot of oppressive regimes only leads to anarchy. In case after case, once the despots are removed and ‘free elections’ are introduced, long simmering ethnic hatred of the poor minority towards the wealthy, economically advantaged minority flares up and results in a paroxysm of violence. Indonesia 1998: with the ouster of General Suharto, native Indonesians rose up against the minority Chinese shopkeepers. Over 2000 people were dragged from their homes and murdered by vengeful crowds.
When sudden democratisation gives voice to this previously silenced majority, opportunistic demagogues can swiftly marshal animosity into powerful ethno-nationalist movements that can subvert both markets and democracy. That is what happened in Indonesia, Zimbabwe, and most recently Bolivia, where weeks of majority-supported, Amerindian-led protests resulted in the resignation of the pro-US, pro-free-market “gringo” President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. In another variation, recent confiscations by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, of the assets of the “oligarchs” Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky – all well-known in Russia to be Jewish – were facilitated by pervasive anti-semitic resentment among the Russian majority.
And Iraq is the next flashpoint. The Sunni Ba’athists repressed the Shiite majority for decades, and the Kurds in the north are extremely wary of any Arab rule. Already Shiite clerics and demagogues are calling for elections, knowing that universal elections will open the door for a Shiite government, preferably one that resembles neighboring Iran’s hard line theocracy. The only thing uniting the various fronts in Iraq right now is the desire to see the American and British occupying army leave. Once they leave Iraq will slide into ethnic violence and anarchy.
Taking the concept further, Chua argues that the United States is seen as the oppressive minority on the world stage. With only a fraction of the world’s population, the US wields unprecedented economic and military clout on the far poorer nations of the world. This explains while the world was so adamantly set against the US led invasion of Iraq – in spite of compelling evidence that Saddam Hussein was a tyrannical despot torturing and murdering his own people. ‘This opposition to the US was closely bound up with deep feelings of resentment and fear of American power and cynicism about motives.’
So what’s the answer? Were do we go from here? How does Iraq become a multi-ethnic pluralistic democracy, a beacon in the Middle East? Unfortunately Chua is rather vague about what steps need to be taken. She seems to be advocating some form of limited representation, starting with local democratic governments and gradually percolating up to the entire nation. But what government exists to keep the country from slipping into anarchy while this localized democratic tradition is built up? Some form of an American proxy government? Some jury-rigged contraption administered by the UN? Nothing seems workable at this point. Iraqis want their country back, even if anarchy ensues.
She does make a valid point that Western democracies did not adopt universal suffrage for women and minorities instantly. It took decades of work to create a system that gives everyone a seat at the table, while protecting the rights of minorities. Maybe the bloody cycle of revenge and violence is inevitable