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By Nenad N. Bach | Published  09/28/2003 | Published Articles | Unrated


By Max Primorac -- Special to The Sacramento Bee - (September 25, 2003)

ZAGREB, Croatia -- Once Iraq's security situation stabilizes, a plethora of embassies, aid agencies and other international institutions will rush in as they did a decade ago in postwar Yugoslavia. The first order of business in this nation-building exercise will be to hire hundreds of Iraqis to administer aid programs and to serve as our intermediaries to their countrymen. This is when the United States could succeed or fail in establishing a firm foundation for Iraqi democracy.

The Balkans provide sobering lessons of the ill effects on democratic development that ensue from relying on former regime apparatchiks. Western agencies did not disqualify ousted Communist regime members from employment or grants. In fact, former loyalists, many from hated military and police structures with no record of dissent, became the main beneficiaries and administrators of democracy aid.

As a result, a leading human rights activist in the region is ruefully remembered by the public as a regime intellectual who helped land dissidents in jail. A favored women's activist's previous position as director of the Museum of Communist Revolution caused a deep rift within the women's movement, pitting ex-regime-against non-regime-led groups. A top minority leader, handpicked by the U.S. Embassy, was a proxy of Slobodan Milosevic, who was responsible for brutal ethnic cleansing. Despite their compromised records millions of dollars in aid came their way, casting them as "leaders" of the democratic process.

Democracy is seen as the peaceful way to resolve simmering ethnic and religious disputes. Yet, the importance of civil society and human rights can get lost in the illegitimacy of past collaboration. After a decade and millions in regional aid, a U.S. government study found "the capacity of NGOs [non-government organizations] to develop their constituency is an uncommon concept to most ... and public understanding of and support for the NGO sector remains limited." Inter-ethnic tensions have not abated either, and NATO peacekeepers are still the only glue holding Bosnia-Herzegovina together.

Here is the dilemma: The very skills we in the international community seek in our local hires and aid grantees -- foreign language, education, and administrative and international experience -- could scarcely have been gained other than through collaboration with this regime. Already there is talk of transforming Baathist associations of lawyers, doctors and other professional groups into a basis for an emerging civil society.

It is reasoned, as it was in the Balkans, that such individuals have skills needed to rebuild the country and thus should be given a stake in a democratic future. But in the Balkans cooption works the other way around. Itinerant Western officials and contractors become dependent on local staffs that promote former colleagues for grants, scholarships and other aid benefits. Those who never collaborated and more genuinely represent their country's aspirations are again "disqualified."

Ironically, the unintended consequence is to re-establish former undemocratic elites under the auspices of democratization.

Iraqis can determine themselves the criteria for electing their representatives and rules governing lustration. If they choose to include ex-Baathists, so be it. However, a more stringent vetting process must be set for people the United States hires and funds, those who will serve not only as our eyes and ears on the ground, but who also will be our faces to the Iraqi public.

This is our choice alone. We cannot expect to win the hearts and minds of those who suffered under the iron fist of Baathist officials if we employ those very same officials. The democratic message we would want to send through them will be rejected, discredited by the messengers delivering it.

This is not to say we should not draw from those inside Iraq, untainted by regime affiliation. But given the high stakes we should primarily draw from the thousands of Iraqis who escaped Saddam's tyranny, forged new lives in the West, and adopted our democratic values and practices. They bring invaluable professional and language skills, cultural sensitivity and good judgment. Most important, they are most likely to stay the course in Iraq and serve as reliable long-term builders of the country's incipient democratic institutions.

This approach can better ensure that we help those inside Iraq who merit help, the ones with the credibility to sell democracy to, and have it embraced by, the larger Iraqi public.
Max Primorac has more than a decade of work experience in postwar democratization and conflict resolution in the Balkans.

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