Does the United States want Democratization in Iraq? Anthropological Reflections on the Export of Political Form

John Borneman, Princeton University


At least since the French revolution, the left has occupied the term democracy—whether a Rousseauian participatory, John Stuart Mills electoral, or Lockean liberal version, while the right has occupied the term "rule of law," usually referring more to its execution than its principles. But in the United States today, the current Bush administration has brought into focus an ideological realignment evident since the end of the Vietnam War: the right now aggressively espouses democracy, while abandoning its traditional embrace of law. In what follows, I will ask whether this administration really wants democracy in Iraq. I may be examining a historical blip, since it is in power only because of a set of unusual contingencies (Bush could have lost the last election). But I suspect this stunning reversal in valuation will not be of short duration.

Though generally associated with the left, democracy has been part of America’s explicit missionizing goal, at least since Woodrow Wilson. Along with economic development, it has been part of a "modernizing" project, of course more often ideological than in practice, and always pursued with national interest in mind, counterbalanced by other concerns, primarily commercial (free market) and ideological (anti-Communist). With the disintegration of Cold War antimonies following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the ideological charge of democracy promised to unite left and right in a chorus of believers: as the end of ideology, a goal without a clear counterconcept, with no opposition except from evil tyrants abroad. What appears as novel, however, is the composition of democracy’s leading disciples and avatars—Bush, Pearle, Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Rumsfeld—all on the right. They have forsaken the conservative tradition of limited government and, above all, stability and "law and order," and instead embraced the possibilities of change and self-realization inherent in democracy.