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Interview: Thomas Carothers on Possible Democracy in Iraq if Saddam Hussein Were Overthrown

Morning Edition: February 12, 2003

Middle East Democracy


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Bob Edwards.

The Bush administration continues to argue its case for war against Iraq. Addressing the Senate Budget Committee yesterday, Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated the administration's belief that Iraq gives refuge and support to terrorists. Secretary Powell referred to a new statement broadcast by Al-Jazeera television, a message believed to be from Osama bin Laden.

Secretary COLIN POWELL (State Department): Once again, he speaks to the people of Iraq and talks about their struggle and how he is in partnership with Iraq. This nexus between terrorists and states that are developing weapons of mass destruction can no longer be looked away from and ignored.

EDWARDS: The Bush administration hopes that removing Saddam Hussein results in major political change, even the introduction of democracy to Iraq. Thomas Carothers is director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He says that even if another regime replaces Saddam Hussein's, Iraq is not likely to embrace democracy quickly.

Mr. THOMAS CAROTHERS (Director, Democracy and Rule of Law Project, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): The country has no history of democracy. They've got different groups in the country trying to pull the country apart, or at least try to pull parts of power their way. And you've got an economy dominated by oil. And unfortunately, in the developing world there's not a single good example of an oil-rich country whose economy is dominated by oil, establishing the successful and well-functioning democracy. So you've got several strikes against you and it's going to put the United States in a position that's going to be very difficult and almost certain to be problematic in the first year or two of the American occupation there.

EDWARDS: So you say a government less repressive, meaning not as many restrictions but still not a full political dialogue.

Mr. CAROTHERS: There's a Stalinist political system in place in Iraq now. That'll go. The secret police will be reduced. There'll probably be some opening of political space, which is a good thing and something to be encouraged and something that, over time, might lead Iraq over a five-, 10-, 15-year period to a more democratic political system. But we can't move right from Stalin to Jefferson in a matter of months, or even a year or two.

EDWARDS: The administration has this theory that you establish democracy in Iraq and it could spread throughout the region.

Mr. CAROTHERS: It's a tremendously appealing idea. You know, I was just in the Middle East over the last two weeks and I posed the question to lots of people there. What would be the effects in your country here in the Arab world of an American invasion of Iraq? Would it tend to make it more democratic? And to put it politely, the reactions were derision, astonishment, surprise. The most likely immediate effect of an invasion of Iraq, on the politics of other Arab countries, will be a tightening of political space because such an invasion will strengthen anti-American forces in the region--anti-American political forces often associated with Islamic fundamentalism, and create a strong pressure on the governments in Egypt and Algeria and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere to crack down, to limit political space, not to open up. The idea that this will somehow produce some magical democratic wave in the region is, at this point, something of a fantasy.

EDWARDS: How important is the establishment of democracy to the Bush administration? 'Cause you hear them talking a lot more about regime change.

Mr. CAROTHERS: They've gotten much more serious about it since September 11th. When President Bush came into office, it was a bit more as a traditional realist who wanted to focus on large scale security issues, geopolitical conflicts and strategy and things like that and downplay democracy. But September 11th was a shock, which has been interpreted by some in the administration as a call to promote democracy more seriously in the Arab world, even though it's also meant having to cozy up to regimes like the government in Pakistan, which are not democratic, because we need their cooperation. But I think people in the administration, particularly in the White House, are serious about trying to promote democracy in the Middle East. It's just that they're, I think, latching on to overly optimistic and idealistic ways of doing it.

EDWARDS: Is it possible the US could establish democracy in Iraq and then it would not spread?

Mr. CAROTHERS: That could happen because most of the other Arab regimes are really stuck. They're stuck between governments that want to stay in power. They're strong, dominant party regimes and they're facing an opposition which is--usually the strongest part of the opposition is Islamist and the governments are afraid of that opposition. And they're stuck between power holders who don't want to give up power and opposition that is of questionable democratic fidelity. And the fact that there are political changes in Baghdad isn't going to change that basic political equation in Egypt, Algeria, Kuwait, or other countries. You're still going to have that political blockage and there's going to be no easy way out of that no matter what happens in Iraq.

EDWARDS: Thomas Carothers is director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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