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Opinion: Slouching toward Baghdad

The challenges of building a new democracy in a place that has been resistant to it.

A Kurdish Peshmerga soldier keeps his finger with indelible ink near the trigger of his weapon after voting during a regional parliament election at a polling station in Baghdad, July 23, 2009. (Mohammed Ameen/Reuters)

PALO ALTO, California — The world has waited, watched and wondered what would happen to Iraq after the American forces left. Now we know. More than six years after they were thrown from power, the Sunnis are still trying to retake control. And the Shiites who now lead the state are edging it ever more in the direction of a dictatorship — not as malevolent as the one it replaced, but more and more authoritarian every day.

By now it’s facile to point out that an election alone does not make a functioning democracy. Elections before the nation is ready for democracy will usually make things worse. The reason for that is little understood. But in Iraq, the current state of affairs was probably pre-ordained.

Working in Iraq a few years ago, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, who is now the Iraqi national security adviser, told me something I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. Compromise, he said, is a concept alien to Iraqi culture.

“I call it the all-or-nothing phenomenon,” he said. “Compromise is a dirty word in Arabic. For Iraqis everything is a statement of principle.”

Sheik Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar, an important Sunni tribal leader and former interim president of Iraq, put it this way: “People here speak from their heart. And when you speak from your heart, you have a hard time hearing anyone else.”

Aren’t those expected, even inevitable, personality features for people who have lived under absolute dictatorships? Saddam Hussein did not compromise with anyone. Iraqis had just one choice: Accept his rules — or die. All or nothing.

For Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, his inability to compromise with the enemy is perhaps his greatest failing. He simply could not bring himself to accept members of the U.S. military’s “awakening councils”— Sunnis who fought Al Qaeda as American mercenaries — into the state police or military. Those he did accept had a hard time getting paid. Is it any wonder Sunni militants are bombing Baghdad again?

This phenomenon is not unique to Iraq. Look at Ukraine. In its first term, the Bush administration spent $58 million on programs to train Ukranian citizens in the art of popular uprisings — an alien concept for people who had been subservient citizens of a Soviet province for most the previous century. Sure enough, they staged an uprising in the fall of 2004. They demanded, and won, new elections to overturn the fraudulent vote that had elected Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovich as president. He was widely regarded as a stooge of Moscow. The popular, pro-Western opposition candidate, Viktor A. Yushchenko, took his place.