Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Iraq Elections

Far before the votes were counted, the American media was declaring the elections in Iraq a "success," a "step forward," and a "historic day" for Iraqi citizens. Again, I think this is symptomatic of journalists' belief that they have the capacity to analyze not just events, but history. Most of them know almost nothing about Middle East history, yet they are quick to declare the elections a turning point, a step, whatever so long as it advances the narrative and gives the impression that what they are covering is no mere transient happening, but a genuine historical phenomenon. (This is why you become a journalist after all -- to witness history. And if you find yourself during the course of your career disappointed that you are not seeing enough history up close, you simply manufacture it).

Where were the conservatives? Mostly they saw the elections as proof the Bush administration was right in pushing for elections early and that the occupation was truly bringing democracy to Iraq. But what none of the right-wingers seem to have noticed is that these elections overturned almost all of the important realpolitik -- and conservative -- precedents that have guided American foreign policy of the last 50 years. Conservatives never wanted elections in a foreign country for elections' sake -- they would only approve of them if 1) America could be certain of the outcome; 2) they lead to greater stability; and 3) the results served American interests. Now, this particular view often lead us to take some very undemocratic positions and support repressive regimes, but from the conservative establishment's point-of-view, we were preventing a country from erupting into chaos and serving our geopolitical interests. Stability was always preferable to the unknown.

Now look what has happened here. We had no idea who would win these elections or what the results would be. The Bush administration was simply rolling the dice-- in Bush's case, out of naive, but fervent and fundamentally religious belief that elections can redeem and deliver a nation; in Rumsfeld's case, out of a zealotous belief in America's capacity to bring democracy to the whole world; and in Karl Rove's case, for reasons of political expediency. But rolling the dice is an extremely dangerous and reckless thing to do. The foreign policy establishment in this country used to be against such risk-taking. But we went ahead anyway, and now we have a pro-Iranian regime in place with strong religious leanings and Chalabi, our enemy (I think), about to gain even more power. Again I ask, where are the conservatives denouncing these elections as a violation of everything they believe in?

Liberals should be appalled too. The elections in Iraq make a mockery of what we believe "democracy" and "freedom" to be. No liberal would ever had said elections in and of themselves were enough. We believe in rule of law as a prerequisite for democracy too. We also believe that before everyone votes, there has to be a way to ensure all the various ethnic groups in a country view the elections as legitimate and will participate. The Bush administration didn't do any of this. They held elections for elections' sake, and secured themselves a symbolic victory that will ultimately prove pyrrhic. As is the case with everything Bush does, it's mostly symbolism, meaningless gestures to bide him time and give him something to argue and fall back on as his policies slowly, but surely lead to disaster. Yet as the media's reaction to the elections suggests, the strategy usually works.

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