Al Gore and the Iraqi Democracy Question

How carefully did Vice President Al Gore choose his words last month when he became the first Clinton administration official to apply the “d-word” to Iraq? In a one-page, Feb. 8 letter to Iraqi exiles based in London, Gore became the first high-level U.S. official ever to publicly promise to promote “democracy in Iraq.” Nothing would be more revolutionary for a place that, for centuries, has been dominated by a small social minority. Nothing would be more threatening for Saddam Hussein, who, for decades, has been the same ruling minority’s strongest leader.

Religious identity is what sets Saddam and his regime apart from most of the people in both Iraq and Iran. Saddam along with most of his military officers, ruling-party officers and elite combat personnel are ethnic Arabs who are members of the Sunni Muslim faith — just like most members of every Iraqi regime including the monarchy that was deposed in 1958. At the same time, at least 60{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of Iraqis and 89{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of Iranians (who are mainly ethnic Arabs and Persians, respectively) share allegiance to the Shia Muslim faith. Ethnic Kurds who also practice the Sunni faith comprise a third social group in Iraq. They comprise less than 20{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of the country’s population and are as small as Iraq’s ruling Sunni Arab elite that, since 1979, has been led by Saddam.

The issue of democracy for Iraq is sensitive because any free elections there would probably lead to greater autonomy for Iraq’s long-disenfranchised Kurdish minority, and also finally bring representative power to the country’s long-disenfranchised Shia majority. To prevent either outcome, the United States has long maintained a de facto alliance with Iraq’s ruling Sunni minority led by Saddam. Today many U.S. officials still fear that without Sunni Arabs like Saddam in control, Iraqi Kurds would try and form their own state which would de-stabilize America’s regional NATO ally, Turkey, while Iraqi Shias would turn what is left of Iraq into another radical Islamic state allied with Iran.

An uneasy imbalance

The U.S. must back democratic reforms in the Persian Gulf selectively.

This perception is outdated. The Persian Gulf has changed in recent years. The winding down of a 15-year Kurdish guerrilla war in Turkey gives U.S. policymakers more opportunities to deal with Iraqi Kurds, and the unexpected rise of moderate Shia leaders in Iran through successive elections over the past three years turns the American notion that equates Shias with fundamentalists on its turban. To strengthen American interests in both Iraq and Iran, either President Clinton or his successor should finally state that the United States supports the eventual goal of democracy for Iraq, whenever Saddam finally falls — just as candidate Gore, however unwittingly, recently did.

Americans have tended to perceive all Persian Gulf Shias in a negative light since the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis that lasted until 1981. The United States has since sought to contain Shia political forces throughout the Persian Gulf. The Reagan administration backed Saddam and his Sunni-dominated regime throughout the Iran-Iraq War that finally ended in 1988.

Many Shias in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon share their own hatred for Saddam. Since 1998, three of Iraq’s Supreme Ayatollahs have been killed in the streets by unidentified gunmen after encouraging Shias to return to their mosques to receive daily prayers instead of receiving them from state television. A year ago after the third murder, Shias spontaneously demonstrated against Saddam. In Tehran, Iran’s most hard-line cleric, Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, immediately denounced the latest top-cleric murder.

The last time Shias worshiped freely in Iraq was right after the Gulf War during the period known as the intifada or “shaking off.” It began the evening after President George Bush urged Iraqis to remove Saddam. First Shia rebels in the south and then Kurdish guerrillas in the north overtook local army, air force and ruling-party bases. The Bush administration, however, never intended to provoke a popular insurrection and instead allied with Saudi Arabia in trying to provoke a palace coup against Saddam in order to keeps Iraq’s ruling Sunnis in power. As a result of U.S. inaction, Saddam quickly snuffed out the Shia/Kurdish intifada. President George Bush would later say that he ordered U.S. forces to stand by because he feared the intifada’s triumph might have destabilized the region.

The failure of current policy

The Persian Gulf remains unstable today because of Saddam and his regime. Few doubt that Iraq is actively rebuilding its weapons of mass destruction while its efforts are no longer being monitored. Russia, China and France recently forced the United Nations to appoint a relatively weak candidate, Hans Blix, to renew U.N. inspections. The new inspection regime that Blix is forming will no doubt be the weakest one since the Gulf War, granted Saddam’s regime even allows the inspections to resume at all.

The United States also goes on paying an ever-higher political price over U.N. sanctions against Iraq. The top two U.N. officials to administer the oil-for-food program that is designed to alleviate the suffering of Iraqi people resigned in February in protest of the program’s failure to do so. In January, 68 members of Congress wrote a letter to President Clinton demanding an end to the sanctions against Iraq — a program that the administration has already begun to weaken in the face of mounting international pressure.
Backing the notion of democracy for Iraq would represent nothing less than a strategic shift for U.S. policy. The change would finally dump the idea of backing a coup against Saddam that would preserve most of his Sunni Arab-dominated regime — an anti-democratic goal that both the Bush and Clinton administrations have separately pursued at one time or another.

The case for U.S. support of democracy in Iraq

Democracy, of course, is uncommon in the Middle East, and it may only be promoted in most nations slowly and with caution. Saudi Arabia is a monarchist dictatorship that is generations away from reform. Self-rule for Iraq would be even more threatening to another oil-producing giant, Bahrain, where, like in Iraq, another Sunni minority rules over a Shia majority. The United States must back democratic reforms in the Persian Gulf selectively in a way that preserves its economic and strategic interests.

But the presumption that America could never back democracy in Iraq is inconsistent with both American values and interests. America’s long-held view that only Sunni Arabs can maintain stability in Iraq is near-sighted. Whether he realizes yet or not, Al Gore has taken a radical stand in backing the simple goal of democracy for Iraq. Other presidential candidates should now be asked whether they back it there, too, while Gore should be asked when exactly he plans to engage in a dialogue with the men who represent Iraq’s Shia majority. Back in 1998, leaders of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution for Iraq based in Tehran said they wanted to work more closely with the United States. But Gore’s allies in the Clinton administration still keep them at arm’s length.

America must finally begin discussions with truly representative Iraqi groups about a future form of government that could keep Iraq together in a way that would protect both its people’s majority and minority rights. Of course, that would be a tall order, and every Iraqi frontline state, among others, would have legitimate concerns about the process. The effort would no doubt fail without leadership from the United States. But it could conceivably succeed. The unexpected continuation of Saddam’s regime in power has been a sobering experience for Iraqis, Iranians and Americans, among others, who share the burden of living with Saddam.

American backing of democracy for Iraq would involve more than risks. It would finally cast the United States in a favorable light in Iran. Shias from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean are sure to retain anti-American sentiments if they rightfully perceive that America is still trying to keep Shias down. But if America were to back democracy for Iraq, there would be no better way to influence Iran.

The policy change would be the most dangerous one imaginable for Saddam. Observers who think the United States could remove him if it wanted to generally are overly impressed with America’s technological advantage while failing to consider that America along with the rest of the West has little or no effective intelligence base today inside Iraq. Backing democracy for Iraq is not the same thing as backing Saddam’s ouster. Democracy presumes that not only will Saddam be forced to leave office but that one way or another Shias will eventually gain the representative power they deserve.

Self-determination is one reason why the Clinton administration went to war with Yugoslavia over its province of Kosovo, and it is the same principle upon which the Bush administration purportedly fought the Gulf War with Iraq to free Kuwait. Yet, America’s moral record is inconsistent. To serve its own interests, the United States needs to apply the same principle now to Iraq. Did Gore mean to use the “d-word” or not?

Frank Smyth, who covered the Gulf War and the intifada for The Economist, CBS News and the Village Voice, is a contributing editor for He is also a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.