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Friday, January 28, 2005


the last iraqi election

in case any had notions to the contrary, it seems that even neoconservatives like larry kaplan have thrown up their hands in iraq:

If Iraq the place has for some time now borne scant resemblance to Iraq the abstraction, the distance only became greater with President Bush's inaugural address. The president spoke not only of supporting democracy, but of "support[ing] the growth of democratic movements and institutions." To the world's "democratic reformers," Bush pledged, "America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country." But in Iraq, the very centerpiece of the U.S. campaign to export democracy, "democratic movements and institutions" are dying, the result of illiberalism, U.S. neglect, and, above all, sheer physical insecurity. As it grinds into its third year, the war for a liberal Iraq is destroying the dream of a liberal Iraq.

If liberal democracy--that is, a political system that protects basic rights and freedoms--is a political choice, an act of will, then someone must create and sustain it. In Iraq, however, those someones--Iraqi liberals--have been so thoroughly marginalized that Sunday's elections, which should be the crowning achievement of Iraqi liberalism, may instead signal its end. As well as empowering religious conservatives, the elections will showcase a cartoon version of democracy, a process of choosing leaders and not much more. The liberal component of liberal democracy--to the extent that it ever took hold in Iraq--has all but evaporated. Its dissipation can be measured in opinion polls, which show dramatic declines in support for a secular state and civil liberties, as well as in the weakness of Iraq's civil society and the strength of its sectarian attachments. It can be measured in the popularity of illiberal political parties. It can even be measured in the meager sums Washington has allotted Iraqi nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and liberal activists. Most of all, it can be measured by the number of prominent Iraqi liberals--NGO leaders, secular politicians, progressive clerics, newspaper editors--who have taken refuge behind barbed-wire gates, fled the country, gone broke, or been murdered. In a country with no liberal past to draw from, where ethnic and religious identities are hardening and daily suicide-bombs and beheadings are ripping apart the thin layer of national cohesion that remains, this hardly comes as a surprise. But for anyone who hoped to see a model democracy take root in the Arab world, it comes as a profound disappointment.
to my mind, the elections make not the slightest difference to the united states occupation -- the insurgency is almost certain to continue in its aftermath, and the bush administration will continue to set the parameters of what iraqi institutions can and cannot do for so long as the american army in iraq remains 150,000 strong. moreover, the idea that washington hasn't gamed the election seems absurdly naive, with so much political capital riding on the outcome.

but kaplan seems to think the outcome is not gamed -- or at least couldn't be gamed to the point of assuring a pro-american outcome. so he is taking the pre-emptive step of declaring the election a failure, that the inherent liberal will of the iraqi people (and it is inherent, if you are a neocon) has been overwhelmed by tradition, violence and neglect.

this conceit would allow the bush administration the freedom to vacate the election and install "enlightened despotism". but at least kaplan puts the lie to the pollyanna propaganda that regularly drips from washington:

Going out on Army patrols, then, feels like passing through a looking glass. Crisscrossing western Baghdad with a convoy made up of elements of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, the Iraqis staring back at us seem far away. The sensation doesn't last. The convoy lurches to a halt at a street corner in Mansur. Apart from the soldiers mounting the machine guns atop the Humvees, the troops all dismount--and start handing out pro-government newspapers. Perhaps because the handout is, literally, an exercise in gunpoint democracy, Iraq Now has few takers, and we make our way back to the American base. As we zip past gas-station lines and through traffic circles--Iraqi cars in front of us scattering to make way--an Army specialist riding in the front seat says, "Ninety percent of them are glad we're here. They know their freedom depends on us."

The belief runs all the way up the chain of command, along with a faith in Iraqi democracy that even the most optimistic of Iraq's liberals can't match. At Camp Victory, the sprawling Army base on the outskirts of Baghdad that the 1st Infantry Division and various units attached to it call home, I sit down for lunch in the book-lined office of Colonel Mark A. Milley, the 2nd Brigade's commander. "The enemy," Milley tells me, "is akin to nineteenth-century nihilists--they offer no alternative vision of society, they're only trying to destroy." And us? "As is true in any insurgency," Milley continues, "the people who will succeed have to appeal to large segments of the population. We and the government of Iraq offer a policy of hope." He recounts the story of an Iraqi cleric who told him, "What you are doing has God's blessing." At which point one of Milley's officers opens the door. The 2nd Brigade has been mortared, and five of Milley's soldiers have been wounded, one seriously. Over the past month alone, seven have died.

The losses don't seem to have budged members of the brigade from their faith in the U.S. mission. "Iraqis are starting to see that things are getting better," Major Web Wright tells me. "They can see that we're offering them a future." Dusk arrives, and I wander around the base with a young Army journalist. Miles and miles of trailers stretch into the distance, flanked by forests of antennae and swirls of dust, kicked up by armored vehicles going out on patrols and choppers landing and taking off. In the huge mess hall, Indian servers offer ice cream, cheeseburgers, even an Indian buffet. And then I stumble back into Iraq. Searching for a night patrol to hitch a ride with, I wander into the darkened courtyard of a battalion headquarters. There, facing a concrete blast wall, sit a row of what appear at first glance to be soldiers back from a patrol, huddling in blankets. But they are all wearing blindfolds, and an Iraqi man shouts at them in Arabic. The detainees, it turns out, were captured in an auto-body shop--often used as bomb-making factories--and tested positive for explosive residue on their hands.

Finally, at about midnight, I depart Camp Victory with a patrol of armored personnel carriers (APCs) belonging to the 3rd Platoon, 58th Combat Engineer Company. As soon as the APCs start to move, its 20- and 21-year-old passengers begin trading coordinates on their radios, scanning darkened buildings with spotlights, and swiveling their gun turrets toward potential ambush sites. The platoon's interpreter, a Sudanese man who somehow wound up in Iraq a decade ago, shouts to me above the din of the tracks rumbling beneath us, "I want to go back to Africa."

I join the lieutenant standing in the open hatch. "The more educated Iraqis are, the more grateful they are to us," he says. "It's the less educated ones--they're the ones who throw rocks." Ahead of us, the line of APCs makes it way forward, only their headlights visible through the dust and darkness. I wonder whether I should offer my opinion that it is the less educated Iraqis who will decide the country's fate. I wonder whether I should tell him that he may soon be fighting on behalf of a government that includes the very forces his comrades battled in Najaf and Sadr City. I wonder what exactly it is that the United States has asked him to fight for.

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