An earlier version of this Commentary first appeared in the American Interest on December 10, 2010

Iraq, the newest democracy in the Middle East, turned down an invitation to attend the December 10 investiture ceremony for the Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. It thus kept company with a litany of repressive governments that declined invitations to the ceremony, including Afghanistan, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Pakistan, Russia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Tunisia and Venezuela.

The Nobel Prize committee observed that a majority of the 65 embassies invited to attend the honors accepted, but this does not explain why a nascent Arab democracy that owes its political opening not just to American intervention but also the will of its own people would not attend the ceremony.

Growing Chinese investment in Iraq is the likeliest factor in Iraq’s reticence. Earlier this year, the government in Beijing cancelled $6.8 billion of Iraqi debt (about 80 percent of the total owed from Saddam’s era) and entered into $3.8 billion worth of trade deals. China also has a major stake in Iraqi oil fields, having won shares in three of 11 oil field contracts put up for bid. This investment also includes a 37 percent stake in the Rumaila field, which contains up to 16 billion barrels of oil and may be “the biggest oil job in the world,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

These surely weren’t the only concerns Baghdad had when deciding how to fill out the RSVP card for the Nobel ceremony. It may also have been distracted by its struggles to form a government, not to mention the necessities of constructing an independent foreign policy suited for today’s global power structure. Even so, the decision to pass on the ceremony is a disappointing setback for what truly matters in Iraq’s future: respect for honest and representative government, open debate, concern for human rights, and, above all, the importance of dissent.

These considerations are not to be brushed lightly aside by Iraq’s leaders. Disgust with ineffective, heavy-handed and venal government comprised key themes during the elections in March. They remain very much on the minds of Iraq's people today.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s emerging authoritarian tendencies, for example, were raised frequently in the pre-election period as an example of government gone wrong. His involvement in the pre-election disqualifications of alleged Ba’athists, the centralization of control over the Iraqi Security Forces though the Office of the Prime Minister, and his reported misuse of these forces to intimidate political opponents and intervene in provincial politics all caused alarm and may have affected electoral outcomes. More broadly, Maliki’s actions raised the question of what sort of country Iraq hopes to become: a centralized authoritarian state or an open society based on political accommodation and fair distribution of power and resources. This question is likely to take years to resolve, although important indications of Iraq’s direction will become evident in the next twelve months as US forces prepare for withdrawal and American influence declines.

Corruption, which so often goes hand in hand with repressive government, is another serious concern. Iraq has consistently ranked near the bottom of annual ratings conducted by Transparency International, and the Iraqi people have made their disgruntlement known. For the first time in memory, pilgrims chanted anti-corruption slogans during this month’s annual Shiite pilgrimage for Ashura, denouncing corrupt politicians and calling on Iraq’s Integrity Commission to root them out. As Abbas Khadim noted in The Carnegie Endowment’s Arab Reform Bulletin last year, “Iraqis who welcomed the change in their country are rapidly falling victim to disillusionment and political apathy, due partly to rampant corruption.”

More than 60 percent of Iraqis prefer democracy to a “strong leader” (poll by ABC et al., 2009). However, ongoing political uncertainty and the lack of basic services have dented that belief. Many Iraqis today express skepticism of the benefits their democracy has brought them, and some even long for a new strongman who will at least impose order on an otherwise chaotic system. None of this is a recipe for the future success of Iraqi politics.

If Iraq wants to take up a bigger role on the regional stage, let alone a global one, it must do so on a foundation of democratic thought and practice.

This is not simply an appeal to Iraqi altruism. Studies have repeatedly shown that democracy advances the prosperity Iraq so desperately needs to succeed as a country. As Morton Halperin, Joseph T. Siegle and Michael M. Weinstein noted in The Democracy Advantage, “Democracies and democratizing countries have outperformed their authoritarian counterparts on a full range of development indicators. . . . Democracies at all income levels have typically achieved results that are 20 percent to 40 percent superior to those of autocracies.”

The United States needs to leave a positive political legacy behind as the countdown to its final withdrawal from Iraq proceeds. The security situation remains tentative, the strategic relationship with Iraq an unmet promise to date, and the gamble of American intervention in Iraq a major question mark thus far. So the United States would do well to make support for Iraq’s democracy—symbolically, politically and practically—a major theme of its policy. This—a political transformation in the heart of the Arab world—bids fair to become America’s major contribution to Iraq and the region itself.

If the United States moves to make democracy its mark, and if it finds cooperative partners in the government of Iraq, then Liu Xiaobo—imprisoned for “subversion of state power,” essentially the charge for which Nouri al-Maliki and many others were exiled (or tortured or killed)—might enjoy the moral and political comfort of a nation that is emerging from tyranny and charting a path to a brighter future in the Middle East. That would be a worthy American legacy indeed.

Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.