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Iraq's insecure democracy

MUCH OF the Bush administration's hopes for Iraq, and the transformative powers of democracy in the Middle East, lie in the ruins of the Askariya mosque's golden dome in the city of Samarra. For the bombing of the mosque exposed clearly what America wants so much to deny: that in the present climate of lawlessness there are ethnic and religious tensions in Iraq that are simply not going to allow for the kind of democracy the administration naively envisioned.

A degree of hypocrisy was also exposed after elections in both Iraq and the West Bank and Gaza. Despite the president's rhetoric about freedom on the march, the first thing the Bush administration did after Hamas won its victory was to search about for ways to undermine the will of the Palestinian people as expressed in a free and fair election. Plots were reportedly hatched with Israel to make life so miserable for the Palestinians that they would go back to the polls in another election and throw the recently victorious Hamas out. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got on her plane and flew off to drum up support for denying the Palestinians money.

Both tactics are extremely short-sighted, for the Palestinians have shown time and time again that they put their pride and their national aspirations ahead of their comfort. If this policy is continued, the United States will lose its leverage to help shape events in the West Bank and Gaza, relinquishing the field to Iran and the more radical elements in the Sunni Arab world. And then Hamas will be even further away from recognizing Israel or forswearing violence.

The old Israeli adage that ''the Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people,'' as an Israeli army chief of staff once expressed it, has never worked and isn't going to work now.

And no sooner did the Iraqis make their choices in an acceptably fair election than the Americans started to tell them what America wanted in the way of an Iraqi government. America's capable and hard-working ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, was not wrong in stressing that a government of national unity was the best way for Iraq to proceed, but to go public with the impotent threat that the United States would withdraw its support of the new Iraqi government if it didn't accede to America's wishes was simply a crude exercise in imperial manipulation and humiliation that, in the end, will do more harm than good. Even if he gets his way, Khalilzad's tantrum will simply de-legitimize the results in the eyes of the Iraqi people as the work of American puppets.

Khalilzad is not wrong in his assessment that sectarian militias will lead to ''warlordism,'' but the chance to talk the Iraqis out of maintaining militias went by the board with Donald Rumsfeld's catastrophic failure to secure the country after the US invasion. For the classic pattern when a state falls apart, and when people lack security, is for them to fall back and rely upon what political psychologists call the ''survival group.''

It is well known that when a group feels threatened it defines itself in the narrowest of terms to distinguish friend from foe. It is only when the group feels less threatened that it can reach out to others to form a broader definition of national purpose.

American ambassadors can threaten the Iraqis all they want, but without security Iraqis are simply not going to give up the means of protecting their particular survival group, their militias. And a broader definition of national purpose won't be possible as long as there is no security. Nothing could have made that point more strongly than the aftermath of the golden dome bombing.

I remember the late Harvard psychologist John Mack telling me that the psychological functions served by identification with a survival group ''are common to all conflicts; survival and a sense of self-worth. These are all fundamental psychological principles, a sense of having power versus powerlessness.''

''At bottom, our survival group . . . defines our sense of self. Any political thinker who seeks a fellowship of mankind must recognize the psychological meaning of the identity of self. Failure to do so will limit such concepts as brotherhood of man to philosophical and utopian visions and imaginings.''

And I am sorry to say that it is precisely the ''utopian visions and imaginings'' of the Bush administration that got us into this disaster in the first place.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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