Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-MI, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, made headlines last month when he broke publicly with the Bush administration and argued that "the mission for us is not to establish a democracy in Iraq, but to make the region secure and stable." Such sentiments are in sharp contrast to the standard line coming from the White House since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Since that time, key figures in the Bush administration have cast the war in terms of spreading democracy and fighting totalitarianism, equating freedom with democracy and tyranny with other forms of government. This narrative is closely aligned with the thought of noted political theorist Natan Sharansky, an anti-communist and author of the 2004 book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. But while Hoekstra's comments sound a note of dissonance among GOP faithful, they stand in continuity with a long line of Christian reflection on the nature of government and politics.
John Calvin, the sixteenth-century reformer, famously held that a number of forms of political systems were theoretically acceptable, because the issues involved in finding "the best kind of government" allowed "no simple solution but requires deliberation, since the nature of the discussion depends largely upon the circumstances." While Calvin thought that a mixed form of aristocracy and democracy held the best prospects in general, he was unwilling to make universal claims about the validity of particular forms of government for all times and all places.
This reflects his recognition, both that the context within which governments administer justice vary greatly and that the concentration of political power in a single figure, such as a monarch, tends to be more corruptible than those forms of government that separate, coordinate, and diffuse power.
Following in Calvin's line of thought on this point is Abraham Kuyper, the nineteenth-century Dutch theologian and himself a one-time prime minister of the Netherlands. Kuyper avers that the task of the government is to be distinguished from the question of the form of a particular state. Pointing to differences between America, Russia, and nations in Africa, Kuyper says that the administration of government might "assume a variety of forms, because there is an endless difference in the development of nations."
Even more recently in the early twentieth-century the Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected on the situation he foresaw coming to realization in post-war Germany. For Bonhoeffer, the validity of any particular form of government may to a great degree be historically contextual. Thus, Western-style democracy may be invalid in certain places and times, since, as he said, "no form of the state is in itself an absolute guarantee for the proper discharge of the office of government."
Bonhoeffer's recommendation for the formation of the German state following the end of the war ran along the lines of an authoritarian government devoted to the rule of law, at least until such time as the Nazi Party could be guaranteed not to achieve a revival through democratic processes. Executed a few weeks before the end of the war, Bonhoeffer never lived to see what form a post-war German government would take. But his concern about the continuing power of the Nazis was shared by the victorious Allies, and the Nazi Party was and still is outlawed in Germany just as Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party was banned following the invasion of Iraq.
What Iraq needs more than a particular structure of government is a ruling institution that establishes and upholds the rule of law, defends the nation from its enemies both from within and from without, and protects basic liberties such as the rights to possess property and to freely engage in enterprise and exchange. These are basic functions of any well-ordered government, whatever the particular form.
Because of various cultural, religious, and political factors the Iraq of today may be unsuited for the institution of a Western-style democracy. But as Christian reflection on the nature of government and freedom shows this fact need not mean that Iraq is doomed to an existence filled with tyranny and terror. Other forms of government can be suited to promoting a flourishing society characterized both by individual liberty and responsibility. Democracy and liberty are simply not identical concepts, and we should take great care not to conflate them.
A version of this commentary has previously appeared in the Orange County Register.