Monday, January 31, 2005

How Not To Torque The Iraqi Election 

And thereby not tank the possibilities for Iraqis to define a multi-ethnic democracy for themselves. (Love that "torque," Lambert, so much better than "spin.")

First step: try and view it as Iraqis might, from however many angles are required to do that.

There's overwhelming evidence that most Iraqis want some form of democracy; they want to make their own choices, and they want the country of Iraq to stay intact; even the Kurds have practical reasons for wanting to stay part of Iraq. A majority of Iraqis loathe the violence into which their country has been dragged; they loathe the chaos, the criminality, they loathe the outsiders, the beheaders, the suicide bombers, how could they not, what with those totalitarian warnings to the average Iraqi to do what the insurgents say, or else face heedless violence; surely that incredible al-Zarqawi leaflet which targeted democratic governance as the enemy and threatened death to all who disagree makes hash of his claims to speak for the Iraqi street, especially after this Sunday. And that is all to the good.

Yes, the outsiders don't make up all the insurgents, and what the insurgency shares with most Iraqis is a profound dislike and mistrust of the way the Bush administration has gone about "helping" Iraq. However, even though there is just as much overwhelming evidence that a huge majority of Iraqis are more worried that we plan to stay on our own terms and timetable than that we'll "cut and run," most of that majority don't want to be left with a broken country. Conclusion: it is highly likely that a majority of Iraqis will see this election as a genuine step forward, and that greatly hoped for turning point, away from the downward trajectory their society has found itself on, caught between the ruthless incompetence of this administration and the lethal violence of the insurgency.

No one should begrudge any Iraqi the perception that this election is a sign of hope, whether or not that sign is seen as symbolic. The invaluable Chris Allbritton, at Back To Iraq spent the day blogging the election in Baghdad and it isn't possible to read what he has observed and be unmoved on behalf of the Iraqi people, and that includes the Sunnis, who may have made a mistake in not participating more fully, but were faced with a set of horrifying choices.
The polling stations were housed in schools, by and large, and several rooms were taken over for the balloting. In each, the cardboard screens were held together with red tape, and then the ballot was dropped in those plastic bins you see on television. The ones I saw were all about three-quarters full.

It was a marked departure from Iraq's elections in the past, which Saddam won handily, of course.

“I feel like a free man,” said Muhammad Abad al-Badawi, a shopkeeper who had just finished voting. “For the last 35 years, we were electing nothing. They were fake elections.” He's supporting Allawi, “because he's a decent man” and he will fix the security situation.

But I have to say, it seems like he's already fixed it, at least for today. Today's highly restrictive measures are untenable, of course, and no one can live like this for long, but for a day, the insurgency was kept at bay.

Which is why, several of us journalists here are going to call this elections for the Iraqis. My friend Mitch and I were discussing this and regardless of who wins in the polls, the Iraqis won here and proved themselves—for a day, at least—stronger than the insurgency. And that's a very big symbolic victory. A huge one, in fact, and Iraqis should take great pride in themselves. When they had the opportunity, they stood up and were counted. The real losers were the Sunnis who didn't participate. They missed a golden opportunity to take part in a process that, while flawed, were the only game in town. I don't know what's going to happen next, and a civil war may still erupt, but if it does, the elected government—one elected by Shi'a and Kurds, for the most part—will have the moral high ground in it.

Read the whole post here, (and consider contributing to keep Chris and "Back to Iraq" going; this is the independent journalism we say we want, let's support it)

Those of us critical of this administration's Iraq policy need to be able to embrace the hopes of the Iraqi people, and I believe we do, despite our understanding that this election is not a sufficient step to end the nightmare that has descended on Iraq. It is not up to any American to decide the legitimacy of this election, it is up to the Iraqi people, and thus far, it appears, most, though not all, Iraqis are prepared to embrace it.

However, the gushing enthusiasm being voiced by the makers of this invasion and occupation and their apologists has almost nothing to do with any ability to look at the Iraqi reality from an Iraqi point of view. A harsh evaluation, I know, but remember the chaos that was allowed to descend on this country when the only source of possible order was the US invasion forces, remember their enthusiasm for the "flypaper theory," and the destruction of Falluja, remember their indifference to Abu Graib, remember how ready have been these same enthusiasts to blame Iraqis themselves for the mess created by the incompetence of the people who planned the invasion and carried out the occupation. In fact, what was Dick Cheney doing, if not that, when he recently claimed on the Imus show that the only mistake the administration made was in not realizing how degraded and damaged the Iraqi people had become under Saddam. As of Sunday, apparently we have finally managed to whip them into shape.

Neither the President nor his Secretary of State seems able to veil how thoroughly they see Iraq and its people as an instrument of their own grand strategic vision for nothing less than the entire world; may the Gods help us when funds are diverted from the Hubble telescope and they are able to turn that strategic vision on the universe, starting, presumably, with Mars, and ending with militarizing space. In the distorting lens of that vision, this is a triumph for the Iraqi people because they have proved themselves worthy of that great gift of democracy, freedom, and liberty bestowed on them by George W. Bush.
President Bush congratulated the people of Iraq today on their first free elections in decades, declaring that the balloting had been "a resounding success" whose effects would be felt throughout the Middle East and indeed the world.

"Today, the people of Iraq have spoken to the world, and the world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East," Mr. Bush said. He praised the Iraqi people for having rejected "the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists."

"They have refused to be intimidated by thugs and assassins," Mr. Bush said in a brief White House appearance. "And they have demonstrated the kind of courage that is always the foundation of self-government."

Does anyone else think that perhaps the President might have restrained his impulse to speak for the Iraqi people, to interpret the meaning of their lives for them, not to mention defining the response of the rest of the world, and in both instances making a claim designed to buttress the President politically, i.e., the reference to his Middle East doctrine? This was a prime example of classic Dubya-speak - one part triumphalism, one part pretended realism, as in his acknowledgment "that the difficult days are not over," but actually just the same old dreamy optimism at other's expense, (because this president is incapable of doing anything differently than he's done before, young Americans will continue to impose a violent occupation on Iraq and its people), and one part cynical mendacity, as when the president pretends that America is not alone, and will not continue to be alone:
Mr. Bush reached out to other countries, and to the United Nations, with which he has often had an unsteady relationship. And he told the American people that their own sacrifices had been worthwhile.

"Across Iraq today, men and women have taken rightful control of their country's destiny, and they have chosen a future of freedom and peace," the president said. "In this process, Iraqis have made many friends at their side. The European Union and the United Nations gave important assistance in the election process.

"The American military and our diplomats, working with our coalition partners, have been skilled and relentless, and their sacrifices have helped to bring Iraqis to this day. The people of the United States have been patient and resolute, even in difficult days."

Be assured those words are all the reaching out that will ever be done.

Second Step: Understand that taking step one does not mean embracing the utterly callous chirping about a triumph of democracy and the moving bravery of Iraqis willing to lay down their lives to vote by people whose incompetence produced the insurgency, who paid no attention to examples of how the seeds of democracy are actually sewn, refused the advice of experts who know about such things, and are the very people responsible for the fact that Iraqis have had to face lethal risks in order to cast a vote and are now unembarrassed to claim credit for the genuine bravery of ordinary Iraqis, and the political acumen of quite a few of their leaders.

Third Step: Understand that the SCLM has been primed to reflect the point of view of the administration, which is intent on torquing the election, as they did the fall of Baghdad, the deaths of Saddam's sons, Saddam's capture, the transfer of sovereignty to Allawi last June, in order to portray it as a milestone in a coherent plan, a turning point away from the chaos into which Iraq has descended. Any Democrat, any pundit, any blogger who expresses doubts about that particular torque-age, or concerns of any sort, like the many different kinds of costs of this war, will be attacked in the same way that Howard Dean was when he refused to declare Saddam's capture a triumph that would change the dynamics of everything on the ground in Iraq. He was right, of course. That has never been admitted by the BigMacMedia, but they've stopped mentioning the incident, even though they're still happy to run video of the howl that wouldn't have been perceived as such had the network sound equipment worked properly.

James Wolcott was immediately on this case with his usual bracing mix of wit, elan, and disgust.
Barring catastrophic violence, the media was prepared to hail the elections as a triumphant day for Democracy. Despite all the talk about the Liberal Media playing spoilsport and wanting the elections to fail (a syndicated cartoon strip--State of the Union, by Carl Moore, the worst scrawler ever to pick up an eyeliner pencil and doodle in the dark, depicted "the liberal media" trying to stomp out the balloting in league with Arab tyrants and terrorists), the coverage yesterday was resolutely upbeat and near-ecstatic today.
Not only will that continue, but so will the SCLM continue to tolerate the blatantly unAmerican attacks by the righwing noise machine on all Americans who didn't vote for Bush or have been critical of any aspect of the Bush policy in Iraq, an attack that while pretending to be on behalf of the Iraqi people, will be on behalf of a rightwing agenda which is dependent on the political good fortunes of George W. Bush and the Republican party. The NYPost this morning features two prime examples of the genre, one by Deborah Orin, one by John Podhoretz, whose title, "Vindicated," pretty much gives the whole game away, both columns so disgusting I'm not sure I have the energy to quote from either one. In fact, I think I'll wait and make that discussion part of a separate post on how we on the left might respond to such attacks.

Something happened yesterday in Iraq that went beyond expectation, and at the very least tells us something important about the situation there. The credit for what happened can be apportioned with a fair amount of precision. The security arrangements worked, and for that the US military and the Iraqi security forces deserve much credit, although locking down a whole country is hardly the day to day answer for the severe security problems that will continue to plague hopes both for an acceleration in reconstruction and for the prospect of true sovereignty over their own country being put, at last, in the hands of the Iraqi people. For the resolute courage the Iraqi people showed yesterday, in the face of outrageous physical threats, the credit goes to them and to no one else. For the fact that a nation-wide election took place this January, the credit goes to Al-Sistanni, for insisting that the Bush administration abandon the Bremer plan, which would have had local caucuses appoint delegates to the assembly that would write the constitution. Let's not forget that the handover of sovereignty didn't spring fullblown from the brain of George Bush; that happened because Al-Sistanni was able to put 100,000 Iraqis in the street demanding an election as well as sovereignty, long months after Kofi Anan and the French had tried to get the Bush administration to advance their plans to do both. Had they done so at the time, other nations might well have joined our efforts in Iraq when that could have made a real difference. Instead, because of the egotism and the arrogance of Bush and his neo-con mentors, we found ourselves forced by a cleric of advanced years who rarely leaves his own study to finally do what many experts had been exhorting us to do, unfortunately too late for us, we, the American people, whose blood and fortunes have been splattered indiscriminately in the streets and on the highways of Iraq, to receive that international assistance which could have been ours, and is still dearly needed, not only by us, but by the Iraqi people as well. Most of all, what yesterday should have shown America is that the Iraqi people are equal to the task both of reconstructing their own country, and of avoiding a slide toward civil war. They were capable of this on the first day our troops entered Baghdad. What has kept their own competence from coming to the fore, from being made use of, has been the overwhelming incompetence of the American administration for whom rosy scenarios and flowery words are constantly substituted for hard-won realities. That the SCLM will not tell that story this week does not make it any less true.

UPDATE: And just because the SCLM won't tell that story doesn't mean that the left side of blogtopia (courtesy of "skippy") won't. I should have remembered to check out Swopa at Needlenose whose been consistently brilliant at keeping track and forcing us to remember all the various permutations of the disaster that has been the Bush policy in Iraq, and today, he's at it again with this post, "The elections Bush didn't want" which you can find here, though you'd do as well to scroll down from the top and read everything in between.

In fact, if we could just get our side of the blogisphere a bit better organized, maybe we'd find it useful for every liberal blog not merely to link to what Swopa sets out for the memory bank, but the actual post itself, in a sidebar, or somewhere, so anyone who tunes into any blog on the left would be forced to deal with it. Just a thought. But truly, at some point, if we're going to make a difference to people other than ourselves, all the energy and intelligence that shines forth from blogtopia is going to be organized in some way that will allow it to pierce through the rightwing noise machine and its echochamber, the SCLM.

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