chapter  3
18 Pages

The ‘Americanization’ of democratic theory: Some lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan


During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the United States found itself heavily involved in efforts to build democracy in two states in which US forces had been deployed to overthrow unappetizing regimes, namely the Taliban in Afghanistan and the regime headed by Saddam Hussein in Iraq. At one level, the exercise might have seemed relatively straightforward. In both countries, ordinary people had suffered at the hands of rulers whose aspirations were brutally totalitarian, even if – as in the case of Afghanistan – the weakness of the state meant that the rulers’ desire to extinguish any private sphere of life beyond the state’s control could not be realized. There was every reason to expect that the victims of such rulers would seize the opportunity to rule themselves rather than be subject to the whims of some ‘great leader’. Yet the experience of the promoters of democratization proved to be anything but straightforward. My aim in this chapter is to explore some of the reasons why. My argument is that – in contrast to the democratic theory of serious American scholars and analysts – the Bush Administration’s ‘democratic theory’ was crudely simplistic, excessively focused on electoral processes at the expense of attention to other pillars of democratic stability, and premised on heroically unrealistic conceptions of what could be achieved in environments as fraught as those in Afghanistan and Iraq. The chapter is divided into six sections. In the first, I distinguish between two important broad approaches to political theory, and show how they can underpin different conceptions of democracy. In the second, I note some of the major contributions that American scholars have made to democratic theory. The third highlights a range of questions that need to be addressed before one embarks on the unthinking use of elections as a democratic device. The fourth examines Iraq’s ‘democratic’ experience in the post-Saddam era, and the fifth looks at the democratic experiment in Afghanistan. The sixth offers some conclusions, of which the most important is an obvious one that is often overlooked: that free and fair electoral choice creates both winners and losers.