Sorry, Americans, but sometimes democracy simply can’t bring peace

The United States keeps making the same mistake.

July 25, 2014
Elmira Bayrasli is a speaker and researcher on foreign policy and global entrepreneurship. She is co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted and, from 2003 to 2005, served as chief spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Mission to Bosnia Herzegovina.

Iraqi soldiers fire artillery during clashes with Sunni militant group Islamic State in the town of Jurf al-Sakhar, south of Baghdad, in June 2014. (REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani)

Iraqi elections in April, the Americans had hoped, would be a valve for the intensifying political pressures in the country. Instead, for months, Iraq’s parliament was unable to form a government that allowed Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to share power. Finally, it appointed a Sunni speaker last week and a Kurdish president yesterday, but a prime minister will take more time: Shiites have no more incentive to share power now than they did before the election. It turns out that elections are no cure for sectarian strife.

The United States has made this mistake over and over again. Americans keep prizing elections over reconciliation and peace. The result: It keeps leaving war zones paralyzed without any prospects for progress.

Take Bosnia. The Clinton administration held elections in that war-torn Balkan country barely a year after the end of hostilities in 1995 — and without any discussion about reconciliation. The elections are, as Clinton National Security Adviser Anthony Lake noted, “what Bosnia needs, to help its hard-won peace endure.”

Twenty years later, three presidents — one for each ethnic group: Bosniak, Croat, and Serb — serve on a rotating basis and agree on very little. Thirteen ministers oversee Bosnia’s segregated educational framework that teach three different versions of the country’s history. Feeding on narrow ethnic-based politicking, Bosnia’s leaders have failed to create jobs or stimulate the economy, much less reform Bosnia’s outdated constitution. The country remains trapped in its divided past, with little prospect for progress and prosperity.

No democracy can exist without elections. Yet, without the necessary preconditions, namely institutions and laws that underpin a democracy — and, in fact, make democracy thrive — they are an empty, if not failed gesture. Imposing elections on places like Bosnia and Iraq before enabling them to seek justice for war crimes and past atrocities hamstrings any hope for proper governance. Indeed, as the cliché goes, there is no peace without justice.

Jacob Finci, president of Bosnia’s Jewish Community, has pushed – since the end of the Bosnian wars – for a Bosnian truth and reconciliation commission. “We must face our past,” he has said. “We must accept it and learn from it the mistakes we are not allowed in the future ahead of us.”

During the four-year Balkan wars, the international community established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993. Though it was out of the hands of the Bosnians themselves, ICTY was an important starting point for Bosnians – and all the people throughout the Balkans — to grapple with a brutal war. Yet, nothing ever followed. The Dayton Peace Accords signed in 1995 ended the fighting. With that and the on-going ICTY prosecutions in The Hague, international attention turned to withdrawal and timelines to bring home peacekeeping troops. Washington wanted out of Bosnia and elections paved the way.

“The work of the ICTY, over the past 20 years shows that courts alone are not sufficient because they do not provide victims with redress and reparation,” Dr. Goran Simic, an expert in transnational justice, has said.

The failure to redress the past and offer reparation haunts those in Iraq as well. While the majority of Iraqis rejoiced over the toppling of their former leader Saddam Hussein, many are dismayed at what has come in his aftermath — the U.S. occupation, the sectarian politics that have ensued, and the continued fear that each Iraqi lives in.

The International Center for Transitional Justice notes that efforts to “face up” to Iraq’s past and establish justice “have suffered from poor planning and implementation, legitimacy challenges, lack of public consultation, and contradictory goals.” This was on full display for Saddam Hussein’s trial — a process that fell short of international standards and, instead, one driven by political vengeance. Since then, tens of thousands suspected of war crimes — during the Saddam regime as well as under the current state – have been arrested, but few have faced trial. The majority has been let go.

“No one [in Iraq] feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation,” Gen. David Petraeus said during an interview in 2008. As a result, Iraqis have taken it upon themselves to seek retribution. Vengeance defines Iraq’s politics today.

In the aftermath of World War II, allied powers prioritized trials over the ballot box. Before the Germans could move forward, they believed, they had to account for war crimes. The Nuremburg trials that followed provided a much-needed forum for Germans and others to come to terms with horrors committed and collectively move on.

Washington is desperate for Iraqis to move on as well. Yet, having inherited a broken government, damaged institutions, and no adequate means to atone for the past, Iraqis remain mired in memory. Iraq’s parliament may reach a consensus and appoint a prime minister to form a government. But like that in Bosnia, this government will not represent the interests of all Iraqis and most definitely will not pursue peace.

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