ERBIL, Iraq - One of the most troubling lessons of the Iraq invasion is just how empty the Arab dictatorships are. Once you break the palace, by ousting the dictator, the elevator goes straight to the mosque. There is nothing in between - no civil society, no real labor unions, no real human rights groups, no real parliaments or press. So it is not surprising to see the sort of clerical leadership that has emerged in both the Sunni and Shiite areas of Iraq.
But this is not true in northern Iraq, in Kurdistan. Though not a full-fledged democracy, Kurdistan is developing the key elements of a civil society. I met in Erbil with 20 such Kurdish groups - unions, human rights and political watchdogs, editors and women's associations. It is worth studying what went right in Kurdistan to understand what we still can and can't do to promote democratization in the rest of Iraq and the Arab World.
The United States played a critical role in Kurdistan. In 1998, we helped to resolve the Kurdish civil war - the power struggle between two rival clans - which created the possibility of a stable, power-sharing election in 2005. And by removing Saddam, we triggered a flood of foreign investment here.
But that is all we did. Today, there are almost no U.S. soldiers or diplomats in Kurdistan. Yet politics here is flourishing, as is the economy, because the Kurds want it that way. Down south, we've spent billions trying to democratize the Sunni and Shiite zones and have little to show for it.
Three lessons: 1) Until the power struggle between Sunnis and Shiites is resolved, you can't establish any stable politics in southern Iraq. 2) When people want to move down a progressive path, there is no stopping them. When they don't, there is no helping them. 3) Culture matters.
The Kurdish Islam is a moderate, tolerant strain, explained Salam Bawari, head of Kurdistan's Democracy and Human Rights Research Center. "We have a culture of pluralism," he said. "We have 2,000 years of living together with people living around us." Actually, there are still plenty of Arab-Kurdish disputes, but there is an ethos of tolerance here you don't find elsewhere in Iraq.
While visiting Kurdistan, I read a timely new book, "Democracy's Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World's Most Popular Form of Government," by my friend Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign affairs expert at Johns Hopkins University. It is highly relevant to America's democracy project in Iraq and beyond.
Mandelbaum argues that democracy is made up of two elements: liberty and popular sovereignty. "Liberty involves what governments do" - the rule of law, the protection of people from abuses of state power and the regulations by which government institutions operate, he explains. Popular sovereignty involves how the people determine who governs them - through free elections.
What Baghdad exemplifies, Mandelbaum says, is what happens when you have elections without liberty. You end up with a tyranny of the majority, or what Fareed Zakaria has labeled "illiberal democracy." Kurdistan, by contrast, has a chance to build a balanced democracy, because it is nurturing the institutions of liberty, not just holding elections.
Democracy can fail because of religious intolerance, the curse of oil, a legacy of colonialism and military dictatorship, or an aversion to Western values - the wellspring of democracy. The Middle East, notes Mandelbaum, is the one region afflicted by all of these maladies. That doesn't mean democratization is impossible here, as the Kurds demonstrate. But it does mean it's really hard. Above all, Iraq teaches us that democracy is possible only when people want both pillars of it - liberty and self-government - and build both themselves. We' re miles away from that in Baghdad.
Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, can be reached at New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.