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Lloyd Omdahl, Published March 28 2011

Omdahl: Libyan culture limiting

Supporting the airstrikes in Libya is the widely held American belief that everybody ought to live in a democracy. But the distance between the streets of Benghazi and the establishment of a democracy may be further than the Libyan culture can manage. That goes for Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well.

There is little doubt that the street fighters who are overthrowing oppressive leaders aspire to build democracies. However, the only thing that unites them in their fight is a common enemy. After that uniting factor is gone, evidence suggests that the desire for freedom doesn’t necessarily result in democracy.

While creating democracies was not our primary goal in Iraq or Afghanistan, we had hoped that democracy would be a byproduct of our intervention. Unfortunately, we can already see serious deficiencies eroding the democratic process – widespread cheating in elections, police-state brutality, incoherent political structure, back-door machinations and rampant corruption. It is starting to look like business as usual; only the faces are different.

The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has already been accused of using special “security” forces to clamp down on demonstrations. The religious divide continues in Iraq, with the Shiites seemingly bent on retaliating against the Sunnis for the years under Saddam Hussein.

Many of the countries in South America and Africa, purporting to be democracies, do not hold regular elections, nor do they accept the results when there are elections. A case in point is the refusal of Laurent Gbagbo to give up his leadership of the Ivory Coast despite worldwide agreement that he lost the election. He has kept his office at gunpoint for four months.

With failed, fake and failing democracies in Africa and South America, we should question whether or not genuine democracy can succeed in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia or other Mideast countries. The Mideast culture, dominated by a tribal mentality, may not be as oriented toward democracy as well-meaning Americans would like to believe.

However, before we become arrogant about the success of the United States, we need to acknowledge that we were blessed with a different political culture from the very outset. When our forefathers came ashore, they brought several centuries of English civic tradition with them, and it was that tradition that led to the successful evolution of a democratic society in America.

Considering the struggles in countries lacking such a tradition, we should be amazed at what was accomplished by the Allies following World War II. Japan, Germany and Italy were all converted from dictatorships to healthy democracies. Much of that success can be attributed to the tutorship by the occupying forces.

The Allies mandated democratic institutions in all three countries and continued occupation until the new systems took root. As an example, the Allied democratization process in occupied Japan continued for seven years after the surrender.

It may sound imperialist, but perhaps a tutorship process is necessary to equip countries now yearning for democratic institutions but lacking the cultural history to support them. Without a democratic heritage, these newly liberated peoples may well end up with something less than democracy. Iraq and Afghanistan indicate that the prognosis does not look good.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com.