"Self Determination" Did Not Work in the Philippines: Lessons for Iraq

Priscilla Tacujan

March 1, 2006

Is democracy failing in Iraq? The sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq—precipitated largely by the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra—seems to suggest that it is. The inability of the transitory government to form a national government seems to point in the same direction. The mainstream media reminds us daily that Iraq is “teetering on the brink of civil war.” And Iraq continues to be governed in both its social and political life by ethnic loyalties and tribal politics, sanctioned by clerical authorities that are accountable to no one. Whatever you believe about the ultimate outcome in Iraq, there is no question that there is a tough row to hoe for this fledgling democratic experiment in the Middle East.

If things are not going well, U.S. policy, perhaps unconsciously, might be contributing to the problem. But not for the reasons you might suppose. By encouraging the formation of a government of “consensus,” that is, a coalition government composed of political parties and groups created along ethnic and religious lines instead of encouraging a “national unity government” where excellence and justice can be measured by some common standard, we might be falling down on the job.

This is not to say that upholding such a standard is easy—on the contrary—it would require a large measure of both patience and statesmanship. We cannot expect perfection or even a democracy in Iraq that looks a lot like our own. Even so, we have the knowledge and the equipment necessary to promote something like it. Our democratic principles are universal in their nature, as President Bush has repeatedly reminded us. Unfortunately, in bowing too much to local customs and prejudices in Iraq, we appear to have forgotten that, and we seem to be making a happy outcome in Iraq even less likely. Worse, we lower the bar, and we appear patronizing to the Iraqi people. We can’t sit by and coo over how cute they look with their purple fingers if the results of their elections yield tyrants. The forms of democracy are not enough to sustain democracy.

For example, consider that the current Shiite prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is now pressured by the Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani and Adnan al-Dulaini, a senior leader of the Sunni Arab coalition, to step down for failing to run the country effectively. Further, out of a 275-member Parliament, 130 seats were won by the Shiite bloc. Indeed, the present political arrangement forebodes an uncertain and unstable political future. Political parties should be shaped by ideas—not by ethnic or religious identities. You can no more persuade a Shiite to become a Kurd than you can persuade a Tutsi to become a Hutu. But it is possible to persuade a Democrat to become a Republican, and vice versa.

But lest we get discouraged by this “democracy backlash,” we must recall that a principled approach towards building a republic, the kind that entails a reasonable and principled statesmanship, a professional civil administration, and an enlightened citizenry are lessons that can be learned. And if history is a good teacher, we should pay heed to lessons from America’s colonial ventures in the Philippines.

A century ago, America launched its first democratic experiment in the Philippines with a view to preparing the Filipinos for self-rule. Since its independence fifty years ago, however, the Philippines has had a turbulent history with tyranny, oligarchy, a communist insurgency, a secessionist Islamist movement in the south, and two “people power revolutions”—hardly the stuff of liberty and justice for all!

What went wrong, considering that America, its sponsor, is the most successful constitutional democracy in the world?

The failure of American-style constitutional democracy to blossom in the Philippines can be explained in large part by the philosophically inspired shift in American colonial policy during the critical early period of the Philippine experiment (1900 to 1921). Initially, the belief guiding American policy in the Philippines was that espoused by William McKinley and Elihu Root; namely, that American control and tutelage must teach the Filipinos about self-rule, preparing them for the duties and responsibilities of republican self-government until enough Filipinos appreciated and followed the principles of good government. In other words, they believed that Americans should be “republican schoolmasters.” They were not shy about the superiority of their ideas to local customs and prejudices. But by 1913 America had a new president, the Progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who argued for and put into effect a policy of “self-determination” for the Philippines as the sine qua non of democracy.

Wilson and the Progressive Democrats argued for self-determination for peoples as communities constituted by their shared history. The emphasis was not on individual rights, but on group privileges and powers. In practical terms, the colonial policy that emerged from this Progressive thinking sought for a transfer of political power from American colonial administrators to the local elite through “Filipinization,” conferring political authority and rights on the so called “best men” simply because they were Filipinos. It was a kind of affirmative action where the prize was not just a job but political power and influence.

Moreover, Wilson’s program treated Filipinos as an object, an abstraction—as “a people” bound together by racial, cultural, religious, or linguistic ties, as those were interpreted by Western intellectuals. Wilsonians did not follow the simpler principle of treating everyone as individual human beings bearing the same natural rights, obligations, and competencies as all other humans everywhere and at all times.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the local leadership took advantage of their ill-earned power to achieve their own political ambitions while hiding behind the cloak of nationalism. The aftermath is a post-independence democracy that easily gave way to oligarchic rule, which, in turn, led to the rise of tyranny, on one side, and radical insurgency movements, on the other. Just weeks ago, the Philippine government was subject to yet another military coup attempt, a phenomenon that seems to occur every couple of years.

In order to solve the sectarian problem in Iraq and for the transitory government to be able to form a genuine “national unity government,” they and we should change both our rhetoric and our policy and make clear the message that a national unity government for Iraq should be one that is grounded not on a coalition of all parties representing ethnic loyalties but on the consent of all Iraqis, every single one of them. The key to solving ethnic conflict is not to sharpen ethnic differences but to neutralize them. Hence, we should not allow a government that confers group rights to groups. Rather, we should encourage a government that rules to secure and maintain individual rights. This should have been our message from the very beginning, but there is no reason not to change it now. For the sake of establishing real equality of rights and authentic self-government for all Iraqis, they and we must contemplate being republican schoolmasters to a new generation.

Priscilla Tacujan holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate School and currently works at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.