NEW YORK — Those of us working overseas promoting democracy would periodically get together at conferences and say that, if we had only done a few more election seminars, Kyrgyzstan could be Denmark by now.
As veterans of postcommunist and transitional democracies, we knew the limits of our seminars. It wasn't enough to bring the information on elections, civic involvement, and transparent governance to places in transition. These countries needed to define their own democratic destiny.
In places with democratic inclinations, US assistance accelerated the timeline for their transition to democracy through a transfer of skills and knowledge. In places with authoritarian rule, American demo-cracy groups made space for struggling democratic partners and human rights campaigners, providing support and often political cover for their efforts.
Iraq doesn't fall into either of these categories, and sets a new precedent in democratic nation building for the US. The Bush administration intends to install a government as a transitional authority, a role assumed by the United Nations in such places as Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor.
Creation of an Iraqi government will bring the US new and costly criticism from Iraq and around the world. US support for the Middle East's nondemocratic regimes and the Arabs' low regard for US policy will fuel much of the criticism. The condemnation can be minimized if the transitional authority is seen as a reconstruction agency that implements swift elections and an exit strategy. International transitional authorities work when short-lived - when national elections and a hand over happen within six to nine months. A longer period is rife with risk of the internationals generating their own bureaucracy, often to the exclusion of local leaders and decisionmaking. The longer the transition, the louder and more legitimate the accusation of colonial governance.
Any transitional authority should incorporate Iraqis at all levels, but should avoid giving jobs to those who intend to run for office from their appointed positions. Candidates running from a position of authority will generate complaints of incumbent benefits, be labeled American puppets, and thwart a cornerstone of the very system that the US is attempting to install in Iraq - fair elections. Those transitional employees who don't have a stake in the outcome of the elections can become the core of the civil service and will be more likely to be retained in a future Iraqi government.
How democracy and freedom are defined from the outset of their introduction becomes important for their support levels later. Democracy could become so linked to the American-led war and postwar administration that its actual development could easily become a referendum on the US military actions and Iraqi exile groups. This definition of democracy would be detrimental to the larger issues of rule of law, fundamental freedoms, civic participation, and competitive elections.
A lesson for the launch of Iraq's demo-cratic future can be found in the pitfalls of Russian perestroika and the years immediately after. The concept of democracy was so closely linked to what was seen as US-style capitalism that when the mafia economy and hyperinflation killed public support for economic reform, democracy suffered with it. Democracy would have survived better with a separate identity and a wider group of messengers broadening the issues to reflect the larger view of democratic dialogue, legal reforms, and policy choices.
The face of democracy presented to Iraqis should be broad-based to reflect the diverse democratic community. Democrats from other parts of the Middle East and North Africa could be the messengers carrying specific and applied knowledge of democratic reform in the region.
The region's democrats, surviving or recovering from authoritarian rule, have a special role to play in walking the Iraqis through their future. Those human rights and election campaigners who've worked around draconian laws and secret police are infinitely more schooled - and credible - in teaching the Iraqis lessons in creating democracy. They should be included in large numbers in any transitional administration authority.
Hiring regional democrats has the benefit of supporting the nascent pan-Arab democratic network throughout the Middle East. They can credibly and effectively convey what they've learned in their own countries to the Iraqis and, likewise, transfer to their own countries the experience they gain in the Iraqi situation.
The US is half right when it says that a democratic Iraq could show the rest of the region about democracy; it is also what the region's democrats can show Iraq.
• Kate Head has worked in nine countries as a democratic development adviser for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. She is founder of Organizational Strategies, a communications and organizational-development firm.