Opinion: Slouching toward Baghdad

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.

Almost from the day Yushchenko took office, his government fell into irresolvable bickering and infighting that continues even now and leaves the government paralyzed. No one is willing to compromise. Ukrainian politicians regarded the elections as just one more tactical stratagem. Now Yanukovich is favored to win the election in January.

Georgia’s leaders, too, fell into unending political squabbles that paralyzed the government after the Rose Revolution in 2003, prompting President Mikheil Saakashvili, in 2005, to warn his ministers: “There is no place for quarreling people in the government of Georgia, the country which should get back on its feet, which should do for the people what we promised.”

Or, consider Cambodia. In 1992 and 1993, after two decades of genocide and war, the United Nations occupied the state. The world’s major nations contributed $3 billion to stabilize Cambodia and stage democratic elections. Cambodia had been an absolute monarchy for more than a millennium. With democracy suddenly thrust upon them, Cambodian politicians also regarded the elections as just another political stratagem. Its leaders continued fighting for control after the vote was in and the winner declared— just as in Ukraine and Iraq. Cambodians, of all people, may be the least willing to compromise.

A few weeks ago, the government put up lights so tourists could visit Angkor Wat at night. The president of a private foundation concerned with Khmer heritage suggested that the installation might damage the 12th-century temple. Immediately, the government sued him for defamation. A court found him guilty, fined him $3,000 and sentenced him to two years in prison.

Democracy, in fact, requires compromise. How can any government pretend to be democratic if every minister, every legislator, clings to his own point of view, refusing to bend, so that every policy debate turns into an angry argument with no conclusion?

Working the art of compromise into a culture can take years. Japan is a thriving democracy — but only after the United States and allied nations occupied the state, nurtured democracy and compromise, for seven years.

In Iraq right now, the government is trying to enact a censorship law, monitor internet use and ban books under a national security pretext. Government censors asked Saad Eskander, head of the Iraq National Library and Archives, to destroy dozens of books, NPR reported last month.

He didn’t debate, appeal or suggest a compromise. Instead, he simply declared: “If the Iraqi government imposes censorship, the National Library will not obey the orders.”

And so Iraq’s democracy lurches forward, governed by bombs and bombast.