Iraq slips back into old ways

As American troops withdraw from Iraq this summer, expect the democratic freedoms Iraqis have enjoyed in recent years to recede as well. Already, the Iraqi government is restricting freedom of the press, expression and assembly. It's toying with Web censorship, torturing political prisoners and killing political opponents.

Even with all of that, Iraq remains freer than every other Arab state, except Lebanon. The United States wrote democratic freedoms into Iraq's constitution, including protections for women and minorities -- offering as a tacit guarantee the active presence of 150,000 American troops. But now the guarantors are leaving.

A large part of the problem is corruption. Under American stewardship, Iraq has grown to be one of the half-dozen most corrupt nations on earth. "Significant widespread corruption" afflicts "all levels of government," the State Department says. Nothing can so quickly cripple a democracy as the need by the nation's leaders to protect their cash flow and hide all evidence of their thefts. That leads, at least, to electoral fraud and press censorship. How can corrupt officials survive if the press is free to report on their misdeeds?

"We are controlled and censored," Faris Fadhil Sultan told me. He's a reporter for Al-Arabiya television in Iraq. "The government can exert its will on reporters through criminal charges or suspension from work -- even kidnapping and killing."

Iraqi reporters are intimidated into compliance -- even when Western journalists found that government officials had embezzled $13 billion in American reconstruction funds. That is a tactical problem for Iraqi democracy. A larger, strategic problem lies in the certainty of history.

After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration came up with the plan to bestow Iraqis with a great gift: Democracy. Freedom!

But a nearly inviolable rule governs this arena: Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation unless its people and its leaders all are asking for it. Otherwise the nation's oligarchy will fight to restore the old order of things, to protect their positions and perquisites. It happens every time. All of that is made even worse when sectarian divisions smolder under the heavy foot of an oppressive government -- only to flare up once the government falls. That's what's happening in Kyrgyzstan right now. Of course, that's been a fundamental part of Iraq's problem from the start.

Afghanistan, another state where Bush tried to bestow the gift of freedom, offers a vivid demonstration of this rule. Like Iraq, Afghanistan had no history of democracy -- and dozens, if not hundreds, of unelected warlords who stood to lose everything if local leaders were elected. And, like Iraq, Afghanistan is thoroughly corrupt. Democracy there stands not a chance.

As it is, the Iraqi people are well aware of how richly their leaders reward themselves, even before dipping into the till. Members of Iraq's Parliament pay themselves $112,000 a year. The nation's average income is about $2,200.

It seems all but certain. Another nation given a chance to be free is slipping back into old patterns of behavior. Soon, after the Americans leave, the last vestiges of freedom will begin to disappear.

Contact Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, at brinkley@foreign-matters.com.