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Opinion

Want democracy in Iraq? Culture matters.

Consider what happened with US occupation in Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.

By Lawrence E. Harrison / July 1, 2008



Vineyard Haven, Mass.

Sen. John McCain recently suggested that pacification of Iraq and the departure of American forces was feasible by 2013. But pacification of Iraq is not how President Bush defines success.

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The president recently restated his goal: to transform Iraq into democratic-capitalist modernity, much as Germany and Japan had been transformed during the military occupations that followed their defeat in World War II.

But Iraq is an Arab country, and no Arab country has yet been able to consolidate democracy, and that includes Jordan and Lebanon, the two that are most developed. Literacy rates illustrate the difficulty of modernizing Iraq: in 2003/04, 57 percent of women in 15 Arab countries were literate. World Bank data show just 30 percent of Iraqi females as literate in 2003.

And, of course, democratization in Iraq is vastly complicated by the longstanding hostility between the majority Shiite and the minority Sunni, and between those two Arab sects and the Iraqi Kurds.

By contrast, Germany and Japan were highly developed industrial nations with fully integrated and educated populaces. And their governments had both surrendered unconditionally.

Our military occupations of three underdeveloped countries in the Caribbean basin in the early decades of the 20th century may have far greater relevance for Iraq.

Motivated chiefly by concern over German presence in unstable Caribbean countries at the time of the opening of the Panama Canal, President William Howard Taft ordered the military occupation of Nicaragua, which lasted from 1912 to 1933. Woodrow Wilson followed suit in Haiti (1915-34) and the Dominican Republic (1916-24).

As in Iraq, these interventions combined elements of realpolitik and what Franklin Roosevelt's Latin America expert Sumner Welles subsequently described as the role of the Evangel: to reform the conditions of life and government of the sovereign republics of the American hemisphere.

But Mr. Welles concluded with respect to US-imposed democratic reform, "All sense of proportion was lost."

The dubiousness of the Bush credo "These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society" is underscored by the aftermath of those prolonged military occupations:

Nicaragua: The US Marines occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933 and attempted to install democratic institutions. But the occupation provoked an insurgency led by Augusto C├ęsar Sandino, who became a symbol of resistance to US intervention. In step with Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbor policy, the Marines left in 1933.

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