A Saucy Confession
Iraq: How Wrong Can You Be?
Thanks to progressivetrail.org for distributing this article, originally appearing at "Democracy's Edge."
by Mark ZepezauerI was wrong. That's what supporters of the Iraq war expect folks like me to say, given recent steps towards democracy in the Middle East. They point to developments in Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and of course within Iraq itself. This tide of reform, says the War Party, proves that George W. Bush is a prophet of regional democratization, who ought to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize while his critics dine on barbecued crow.
Well, I certainly was wrong. I completely underestimated the capacity of Bush backers for self-delusion, cynical rationalization, and audacious spin. I will adjust my esteem of them accordingly. I mean, seriously: even if everything they claim is valid, is that what we've spent hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives to achieve? Pre-selected slates of municipal functionaries for male Saudis to approve? The removal and reinstatement of a pro-Syrian leader in Beirut? Anonymous candidates, political gridlock and disproportionate influence for theocrats in Baghdad?
It's true that our authoritarian allies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia haven't given this much lip service to reform since the last time we invaded Iraq. And the Egyptian moves are truly dramatic: by allowing a pre-selected slate to run against Mubarak, Egypt has now progressed to the same level of democracy as Iran. The Saudis, meanwhile, are basically codifying an existing system in which the House of Saud confers with prominent males on the municipal level. Voting is a nice touch, but universal suffrage would be nice, too.
Yes, there has been progress in Libya and Syria. It's the kind of progress that happens when we work with our European allies, rather than thumb our noses at them and mount huge invasions. But more to the point, it's progress that was happening anyway, before we mounted that invasion. The Europeans had been negotiating with Libya for years; the fact that the results were announced after the Iraq war began proves nothing. Likewise, any warming in Syria happened because Assad the younger took over from his ghoulish dad. Under Bashir Assad, the Syrians had been quietly withdrawing forces from Lebanon long before Washington "demanded" they do so.
Nor can Bush take any credit for a democratic awakening in Lebanon; that country has been a democracy for more than a half century. Their democratic process seems to show that while many of them would like the Syrians to leave, just as many would prefer Syrian influence to American influence over their polity. What is perhaps more interesting is why democratic reformers in nearby Jordan have been getting the cold shoulder from Washington.
But, say war backers, there wouldn't have been elections in Iraq if we hadn't toppled Saddam. Maybe not, but we'll never know. We do know that bloodless revolutions in Eastern Europe, Indonesia, the Philippines, and elsewhere have repeatedly shown that seemingly invincible regimes can be toppled without war. Nevertheless, we did have a war (still do, in fact), and Iraq did have an election. So how about that?
You'll recall that Bush's war was never sold as a democracy expansion project. It was billed as a crusade to rid Iraq of its bristling arsenal of nasty chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. And, you know, to get revenge for the fact that Osama came from that exact same part of the world. Let's be as charitable as possible. It's true that some of the pre-war rhetoric did mention how nice it would be if oppressed Iraqis could get Uncle Saddam off their backs. It's just that that particular argument was stressed about as thoroughly as the warning box on a cigarette billboard; mushroom clouds and fictitious al-Qaida links polled much better. Moreover, the uncomfortable truth is that the Bush administration had to be dragged kicking and screaming into allowing elections in Iraq.
First they tried to install a convicted embezzler as president. When that didn't work, they announced that Paul Bremer would be running the place for five years or so while a constitution was worked up. And in the meantime, they actually stopped Iraqis from holding local elections and threw some of the winners into Abu Ghraib.
When that particular tack ran into some strong headwind, they came up with a caucus plan in which our preselected Iraqi stooges would preselect local leaders to hold meetings in which they would preselect the members of parliament to write a constitution - you know, while Paul Bremer ran the place. Truly a Bush-style election plan: no pesky voters to mess things up. Only after the Ayatollah Sistani put a hundred thousand demonstrators in the streets did they say, okay, you can have your elections. But even then, they were delayed yet again, until after our own quadrennial exercise in democracy, lest the Iraqi process reflect badly on our incumbent.
Well, we all know how that turned out, even though international observers in Florida said they've seen freer elections. Of course, in Iraq, the international observers never even left the Green Zone. The press, though, did manage a rare excursion from their Baghdad hotel rooms to get out and report on the miracle of Iraqi democracy - from a grand total of five polling stations, in a country of 25 million people. By some coincidence, the voters in each of those precincts turned out to be mighty excited about their US-sponsored election. There were those who grumbled that the only reason they voted was to insure they'd get their food rations...but there were no cameras in those polling places.
Despite a certain foreign power heavily subsidizing the Ayad Alawi campaign, a majority (of those who turned out) voted for a heavily religious Shiite coalition. The winners of the election are friendly with the Iranian mullahs, and would like the US to set a timetable towards ending the occupation. And yet, for more than two months after winning the elections, they were unable to form a government. That's because Bremer (and the gang of Young Republican graduate students he picked to run the country) came up with an electoral system that was guaranteed to thwart the will of the majority. You know, just like ours does.
So imagine that the size of your home state's congressional delegation were determined not by its population, but by turnout on Election Day. That was the deal in Iraq, where much of the country is still in a state of war. The result was a parliament underrepresented by Sunnis, and overrepresented not only by Shiites (who are after all the majority of the population) but also by the Kurds. But since the Shiite parties received a majority of the seats in parliament, you'd expect that they'd be running the show. But the Kurds have a virtual veto over everything the Shiites do, because, thanks to Bremer, Iraq has the only parliament in the world where you need a two-thirds majority to form the government.
The result is political gridlock. The Bushies always knew the Shiites would win, and so wrote the rules to hamstring them. They can't govern without cutting deals with the Kurds, who are Washington's allies. Unlike the majority of Iraqis, the Kurds love the US occupation, and think it would be just great if we kept a bunch of permanent military bases there. Even though the Shiites managed to cobble together a coalition, the government will be extraordinarily weak, and incapable of providing for its own internal security. The real power will lie in the bureaucracy, pre-packed through and through with Washington's cronies. And contrary to international law, the US has locked in place regulations that will privatize Iraq's government assets, and make them available to foreign corporations. Anyone want to guess which foreign power's companies are first in line?
While the Shiite leaders may wish to reverse those decisions, they won't have the clout to do so. They may want the US to leave, but that isn't going to happen. And in case they have any ideas about using their militia forces to leverage their electoral power, the US has made it known that the "Salvador option" is on the table. That is, death squads - armed and funded by the US occupation, and comprised of former Baathist goons, who, after all, have plenty of experience keeping the Shiites in line.
So the Shiite majority will inherit an Iraq permanently occupied by US forces and their proxies, which is a playground for US multinationals, and whose key ministries are run by US-educated functionaries. They also take over a government which, under the Bremer/Alawi regime, was more corrupt than Saddam's. They also command a country in ruins, with basic infrastructure far from restored, and an infant mortality rate double that of the Baathist regime's.
If this sounds like fertile ground for a renaissance of Arab democracy, consider this: the new parliament has but one task: to write a new constitution, which, if ratified by the voters, will form the framework for the next elections. But unlike the leisurely five years the Coalition Provisional Authority gave itself to write an Iraqi constitution, the new Iraqi parliament must complete its work in just over six months. And two of those months ticked away with no elected government in place.
I can't believe how wrong I was about all of this. Sure, I knew before the war that the US would be bogged down by guerilla resistance, that we would be building permanent military bases, that we had more interest in Arab resources than Arab democracy, and that we'd have to set up some kind of propaganda-driven sham election in order to save face. It's just that I never thought so many people would be taken in by all of that. Well, look how wrong you can be.
Mark Zepezauer is the author of the classic book on corporate welfare called Take the Rich Off Welfare.
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