World Leaders Forum Slideshow

Student Essays

Talabani's Talk in the World Leaders Forum

By Andrew Monahan

Introducing himself as "a representative of the youngest democracy in the world," Iraqi President Jalal Talabani spoke in Low Rotunda on September 17 as part of the University-sponsored World Leaders Forum. Youngest Democracy | start: 0:4:47 | end: 0:5:5 Palpable throughout Talabani's speech was his concern that America and its allies not leave this "youngest democracy" to become one of the world's shortest lived. Amid expressions of gratitude for liberation from the Saddam regime, Talabani wove warnings that "a withdrawal of American and multinational forces now or in the near future could lead to victory of the terrorists in Iraq." To provide a framework for understanding Talabani's talk, I would like to comment on it in the context of the "Conceptual Foundations of International Politics" course, taught by Stephen Sestanovich at the School of International and Public Affairs. In particular, I submit that Talabani's talk illustrated the importance of Columbia political scientist Jack Snyder's challenge to the conventional wisdom that democracy is a panacea for violent conflict, for as Snyder shows, attempts at democratization actually increase a state's risk of conflict, although this risk can, and should, be controlled.

Fresh from reaffirming President Bush's commitment to an "Iraqis stand up, Americans stand down" policy in talks at the White House on September 13, Talabani addressed doubts that Iraqi military and civilian institutions could reach sufficient levels of operations in a time frame acceptable to an increasingly impatient American electorate. He claimed increases in the number of security forces trained and enemies captured, adding that the recent largely Iraqi-led "fight in Tal Afar proves that we are getting stronger." But in addition to security problems, state-building in Iraq has been stymied by the absence of legitimate local civilian authorities. Talabani hinted at the need to fill this void, where the insurgency has been stepping in: "Fighting them on the political front by creating a democratic Iraq is just as important as the military approach." Importance | start: 0:15:3 | end: 0:15:16

Indeed "fighting them on the political front" is not only more important than military operations – which risk replenishing insurgent ranks more than decreasing them by inadvertently inciting anti-statist sentiment – but should be the goal. When states move from authoritarian regimes to democratic systems they pass through a dangerous transitional phase in which the sudden increase in participants in the political process threatens to overwhelm the capacity of yet unstable democratic institutions. At this point, participants may pursue other means of participation. As Snyder notes in his book From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict, political participation "may also take nondemocratic forms, such as . . . forming mass-based paramilitary movements." For this reason, Talabani and the U.S. leadership should seek to ensure the inclusiveness of the Iraqi political process so that conflict may increasingly change from being violent to being political.

Talabani mediated between opposing factions of the Constitution Draft Committee, which finally approved a document on August 29. He said that the mid-October national referendum on that draft constitution, a critical test of progress toward the goal of creating democracy, is most important for building "a sense of ownership of the new Iraq." Ratification is secondary, Talabani stated, though he believes a large percentage of voters will turn out to approve it. The draft constitution stipulates a federal democracy, though opponents have argued that this decentralized arrangement will increase the danger of civil war. A member of the Kurdish minority suppressed by the highly centralized Saddam regime, Talabani has been a vigorous supporter of federalism. When asked in the question and answer session after his speech to explain that support, he responded that "without a federal democracy it is impossible to imagine a united, strong Iraq, with all the different nationalities and religions."

While Snyder believes that "ethnofederalism is frequently a recipe for subsequent partition," he acknowledges the success of this approach in the world's largest democracy, India. At any rate, the federalism Talabani advocates for Iraq recognizes not only the entrenched institutions of the Kurds, but also the historical split in political power between the minority Sunni and majority Shiah groups among Muslim Iraqis. As highlighted by Talabani's talk, the challenge lies in maintaining political will long enough in Iraq and the US to successfully establish democratic institutions while not taking so long to do so that leaders within the differing religious and ethnic groups grow impatient and stir nationalist embers that could fan out into civil war. As Snyder writes, violent internal conflict can be avoided during the dangerous phase of early democratization by taking "advantage of the fluidity of national identity during the formative stages of democratization to promote more inclusive, civic identities and cross-ethnic alignments." So the current Iraqi political leadership has relatively clear goals and disputed but apparently positively evolving means on how to get there, outlined in the constitution that would create a federal constitutional democracy. What impediments remain? Winning passage of the constitution is of course the most immediate challenge. But even supposing a majority of Iraqis ratify the constitution, the need to increase incentives for democratic, non-violent participation will remain.

Political scientists like Snyder generally believe that democratization has succeeded at the point when opponents are no longer able to seriously disrupt or offer viable alternatives to its legitimate monopoly of force. In other words, when democratic institutions and elections are "the only game in town," democratization has matured beyond its dangerous early transitional phases. Getting to this point in Iraq will clearly entail more blood and more time, but if these expenditures become intolerable to suffering Iraqis or impatient American politicians, the point may never be reached at all. Talabani's talk conveyed the mood of this crisis marked by the difficulty of bringing a fledgling democratic state quickly to maturity.

His efforts to assuage American anxiety over the pace of progress was apparent in a pointed comparison between the current time-consuming consensus-building and the sudden coup in 1968 that secured Baathist, and ultimately, Saddam's rule. "We should be pleased that it takes longer to form a government in the new Iraq than it did in the old Iraq," he joked darkly. "The old Iraq formed a government very quickly, in roughly the time needed for the tanks to travel from the barracks to the presidential palace." But Talabani's talk left no doubt that he is aware of his monumental challenge in quickly reconciling competing demands, not least of which will come from American congressmen tempted to promise early troop returns in the upcoming election year. His determined realism is encouraging even when the news from Baghdad is not.

Snyder's warning that "the process of democratization can be one of its own worse enemies, and its promise of peace is clouded with the danger of war," and that "to promote democratization without heeding these risks would be self-indulgent idealism" was certainly not heeded by the Bush administration. Unrealistic American assumptions account for the majority of the problems the Iraqis now face in building their new democratic state. But consideration of the lessons of political scientists like Snyder that prescriptions to diminish the centrality of violent conflict during democratic transitions can be made make me think that they should be given a full and fair chance. Talabani's talk left me convinced that the Iraqi leadership, at least, understands both the importance and urgency of this task. Importance | start: 0:15:3 | end: 0:15:16

This essay was sponsored by the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) and produced using their technology, Video Interactions for Teaching and Learning (VITAL).