Why We Are in Danger of Losing the Peace in Iraq

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Dr. Judith A. Klinghoffer is a senior research associate in the department of Political Science at Rutgers University, Camden. She is the co-author of International Citizens' Tribunals: Mobilizing Public Opinion to Advance Human Rights and the author of Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East: Unintended Consequences. Click here for her HNN blog.

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I cannot think of a more appropriate time for the message of this article than the week after "we the people" celebrated the anniversary of our liberation. For it was liberation. On the Fourth of July we ceased to be subjects and became citizens of a country. To be a citizen meant then, and means now, having the right to vote. Our founders knew that those lacking that right were but "slaves, . . . complete vassals, who have no voice to utter in choosing their rulers."

Still, empowering the average Joe did not come easy to the revolutionary elite. John Adams was amongst those who warned that it was "dangerous to open so fruitful a Source of Controversy and altercation; as would be opened by attempting to alter the Qualifications of voters. There will be no End of it. New claims will arise. Women will demand the vote." But the Patriots wanted to win the war, and the people demanded the vote. State after state expanded the franchise. The fiercer the Loyalist-Patriot competition for the allegiance of individuals, the more inclusive the franchise became. And just as Adams predicted, women did demand the vote. And in the central battlefield that was New Jersey, single women got it and helped the Patriots win the war.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration forgot this lesson or lost its nerve. First, it dropped its demand for prompt elections in the Palestinian Authority and then delayed indefinitely the Iraqi people's opportunity to chose their own rulers. Note the following Washington Post headline: "Occupation Forces halt Elections Throughout Iraq." The other day the New York Times informed its readers that Sandra Day O'connor is working on drafting laws for Iraq. As the rising death toll of coalition forces and their collaborators in Iraq demonstrates, unless the Bush administration changes strategy quickly, it will lose the war to make the Middle East safe for democracy. For in the battle to remake the Middle East, America has but one ally -- the inhabitants of the region. She does not need to win their hearts with her largess, she needs to prove to them that she keeps her word by turning them into citizens. The only way to turn subjects into citizens is by giving them an opportunity to elect AND reelect their leaders. Citizens, unlike elites, put their daily life, liberty and pursuit of happiness first. That is the reason revolutionaries are eager to avoid electoral constraints and ideologues are contemptuous of the citizenry's judgment.

Be that as it may, the war in Iraq revealed a secret those opposed to the war either did not know or were anxious to keep which is that Iraqis are no different from Americans or Europeans. They, too, want to be self-determining individuals rather than mere pawns or martyrs. Indeed, they want it so much that they took a chance, and opened the doors of their country to the Americans thereby proving that you can fool the chattering classes much better than the average Mohamad or Fatima. A shocked Jordanian editor wrote: "Had Baghdad fallen in resistance, the women would have rejoiced as the Palestinian mother rejoices when her son falls as a martyr from shooting by the Israeli occupation. But Baghdad fell without resistance, and without warriors standing before the American tanks. Some of the Baghdadis even celebrated . . . " and by so doing, noted an Al-Jazira editor, they revealed "the real relationship between the Iraqi regime and people."

What was the real nature of that relationship? "The answer is simple," wrote the editor of a Kuwaiti daily, "The army was [made] only to defend the Ba'ath party from the Iraqi people not to defend the homeland against its enemies. The armies of the Ba'ath regime were strong only against helpless people, women, children, and elderly. The Ba'ath party was strong against its enemy, which was the Iraqi people, not against Israel, the U.S. or the U.K… there is no other explanation for the embarrassing speed in which the Marine forces took control [of] Baghdad, except for the explanation that the people did not support the unjust Ba'ath regime."

The Kuwaiti emphasis on the "unjust Baath regime" is not accidental. It is designed to imply that only Syria, the other Baath-ruled country, is in similar danger. Indeed, on May 17, 2003, 287 Syrian democrats were quick to pen a petition arguing that the only way Bashir Asad can avoid Saddam's fate is to undertake serious reforms before the U.S. acts. This is how they put it: "Whatever happened in Iraq and Palestine is the start of what the Americans call the New Era, and they are now drawing its borders by the power of occupation. We must undermine their aspirations by correcting our situation and improving our nation. It does not escape Your Excellency that the only force capable of accomplishing that is a free nation -- which was excluded from political and public involvement, and that must be brought back so it can regain its importance to defend the motherland." When asked about the petition in a June 7 Arab satellite news channel interview, Bashar pretended to agree with the petitioners. "I'm one of those who were hurt MORALLY by what happened in Iraq. It caused us to think about how to open our country." It clearly did not cause him to permit the families of those buried in Syrian mass graves to exhume the bodies of their loved ones. It did cause him to try to pacify the Americans by turning over to them a few of Saddam's henchmen while doing his best to smooth the transit of anti-American guerrilla forces into Iraq. Maybe, just maybe all he would have to do is just "think" about reforms?

Still, who are the "us"? They are the other Middle Eastern rulers who know that the issue is not the Baath but the entire system of governance based on co-dependency with radical revolutionaries. They, too, heard the argument I have recently seen a young Iranian woman making to a BBC correspondent. "If [the] regime does not listen to us, we will not fight for it when the Americans attack." Rulers such as Egyptian president Mubarak, Saudi king Fahd or the Sultan of Oman have turned over to radical ideologues much or all the religious and secular means of mass communications and then used the growing "threat" of radical movements to avoid external and internal pressure for democratic reform. The radicals, in their turn, have used their government's viciousness, corruption and failure to provide adequate social and educational services as recruiting and financing tools. Consequently, both the autocrats and the radicals nurtured the myth of regional radicalism and both were threatened by the puncture of that myth.

But there was a difference. If some autocrats may "think" that a limited reform may save their regimes, the radicals know that such reform is bound to destroy them. Hence, the callous response to the discovery of mass graves in Iraq encountered by the Lebanese columnist Salem Mashkur during a convention organized by the students of American University in Beirut. There Mashkur argued against the subjugation of an entire country "to the interests of a single man and his two sons… to the point where, when foreign forces invaded the country, the Iraqi people stood idle, indifferent to the outcome of everything. All the people wanted was to be rescued from this nightmare." But the leader of a Lebanese movement dismissed his words as "more Iraqi whining." "Mass graves . . . exist in any Arab country, and are not unique to Iraq," the student leader argued and therefor Iraqis have no right to complain. Instead, they should turn the page over on the Saddam regime and remember that "the Arab nation is at risk and is under oppressive conquest [i.e. American occupation]."

This argument enraged, if not surprised, Mashkur. He writes: "This colleague of ours tried to detract from [the seriousness of] the massacres.... This is how the defenders of Saddam's dead regime acted, claiming that Saddam was not the only despot in the Arab world. While the late regime slaughtered its own people for decades, all these 'Jihad warriors' and the various Arab 'fighters,' secular and religious, held their tongues. Some even welcomed this slaughter; others justified their silence [by claiming] it was a foreign conspiracy…. All these arguments [reflect] the… official and general Arab discourse: the negligible nothingness of the individual, and disparagement of his liberties, dignity, and even his bones in the mass graves…. "

All that is true of course, but the only way radicals can survive the fallout of the Iraqi war is in the manner they had done before, by demonstrating their usefulness to regimes that slaughter their own people. How? By obstructing the American efforts to reconstruct the country and by persuading them that timely elections will radicalize rather than moderate the region. An indefinite postponement of the elections is bound to alienate the inhabitants and convince them that their elites were right all along, the only choice they have is between native and foreign domination. The Americans not only did not come to Iraq because it wasn't democratic but they did not come to create a democracy there. Once that has been proven, Arabs will give up hope, refocus their helpless rage on the traitorous foreigners and the autocratic-radical alliance will have snatched yet another political victory from the jaws of military defeat.

All the radicals had to do was follow Yassir Arafat's lead. Had he not succeeded in scaring straight the Palestinian legislators with a few rounds of gun shots around their houses? Had he not outmaneuvered the Americans by getting them to accept the "Parliamentary election" of Mahmoud Abbas as prime minister in lieu of general elections? Had he not succeeded in retaining control of 70 percent of the Palestinian funds so that he can continue to support his radical friends? Had he not prevented Abbas from going to Washington and forced Bush to come to Aqaba (Kanossa)? Had he not organized a joint Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad attack on Israeli soldiers processing the first passage in many month of Palestinian workers into Israel to insure that Palestinians do not regain their hope? And when 56 percent of the Palestinians dared express to pollsters their support for the American "road map," had he not sent out his foreign minister to announce that if the Israelis retreat promptly, an election could be organized by October in which he, Arafat, will be the only serious candidate? If the Bush administration is aware of this slap, it gave no indication of it. Instead, it let it be known that his administration is prepared to be tough on ISRAEL.

If Iraq is fast becoming reminiscent of the Palestinian territories, it is because the radical revolutionaries have learned from Arafat's successes and the Bush administration forgot what our founders knew. The enfranchisement of the people is a proven American war strategy and not the ethical luxury so disdained by foreign policy professionals. In a fascinating article published in the May 2003 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique, entitled "When the US wanted to take over France," Annie Lacroiz-Riz describes an American plan for a "Vichy-sans-Vichy" supported by the French elite and the strong American distaste for General DeGaulle. Apparently, Ahmad Chalabi is not the first exiled leader to be scorned by parts of the American government. Nor is the Middle East as a whole and Iraq in particular more ethnically and religiously diverse than Europe as a whole or Germany in particular. So, Americans have no more reason to treat Iraqis as mere members of ethnic/religious groups than they had reason to treat Germans as such. Replacing Sunni dominance with Shia dominance is a recipe for violence. Democracy means rule of the people by the people for the people not government of ethnic/religious groups by ethnic/religious elites for the benefit of ethnic/religious groups. If the first encourages compromise, the latter invites internecine violence. So, let the old time American strategy reasserts itself before more of out troops die on the altar of Middle East experts.

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More Comments:

Mike Riley - 7/16/2003

Michael Meo apparently defines the hijackers as "intelligent" because they were able to take advantage of a free society in order to perpetrate an act of tremendous savagery. After-the-fact analysis implies that they succeeded only because of a lack of coordinated intelligence in this country. Additionally, I don't believe flying hijacked planes into commercial buildings meets anyone's definition of "attack". I would define these young men as deluded fools. Despots throughout history use (and consume) such to further their selfish goals.

Michael Meo - 7/10/2003

You have correctly described yourself, Mr Heuisler.

On the issue before us, whether a certain attitude toward the murderous perpetrators of the crime of September 11th is humanist or not, I repeat that a humanist is one who has one worth, one dignity, one value for every one of us poor children of Eve, namely that they are all like himself.

Since as you so vehemently observe, other people are imperfect, the humanist attitude is to admit that you yourself are flawed. That is, that we are all short of the perfection we would like, short of the attainment of the teaching of the religion we profess, short of full humanity.

A certain Jewish religious reformer active in the Middle East suggested we should take note of the beam in our own eye before calling attention to the mote in the eye of our neighbor. I won't claim JC as a humanist, but he did give good advice.

The point is, we ought to attribute to others the desires for peace, justice, and security that we have ourselves. I submit that the highly intelligent hijackers were human, and there's greater explanatory power in accepting them as human than there is in dumping them into a category of 'evil' which we automatically assume we do not share.

That's my final word on this subject.

Bill Heuisler - 7/10/2003

Mr. Meo,
Perhaps it escaped you, but your "intelligent", "courageous" butchers of helpless people were Moslems. Allah's name is screamed on flight recorders seconds before impact. Religion? Does the Koran suggest booze and whores before killing innocent women and children and committing suicide? Their irreligious act was the ultimate cowardice and your admiration is irrational.

Also, you wrote about my "indictment of sociopathy". Sociopathy needs no indictment, the word indicts itself. Look up pathology, Mr. Meo, and apply the word sociopathy to your beloved humanism. A little mixed up, are we?
Bill Heuisler

Michael Meo - 7/10/2003

My dear Mr Heuisler,

I wonder how long it will take you to accept 9/11 as a spectacularly successful act of guerilla warfare. They succesfully attacked the Pentagon.

Four planes hijacked within minutes of one another, after a period of years of training undercover, and you object to the plotters as being called intelligent and courageous? Oh, well.

I trust the frequenting of prostitutes, a pretty widespread practice last I looked, does not form part of your indictment of sociopathy. I do plead guilty to regarding Nazis, Communists, and cannibals as human beings.

Bill Heuisler - 7/9/2003

Mr. Meo,
You wrote:
"Are not the courageous, intelligent, almost preternaturally mentally agile hijackiers of September 11 characterized as "evil", as if that is enough to explain their motivation?"

That's how you enunciate Humanism and agree with Klinghoffer?
You admire rich muslim men who spend an evening getting drunk with prostitutes, wake up, take advantage of trusting civilians and pull box-cutter knives through young people's throats?

Evil could be defined as reluctance to discern sociopaths. May we assume your blind spot is politically motivated? Or do you have pictures of Stalin, Eichmann and Dahmer in your bedroom? Your post confirms Coulter's thesis in her book, Treason, and Professor Klinghoffer will be horrified with your association.
Bill Heuisler

Michael Meo - 7/8/2003

I could not agree more, Ms Klinghoffer, with your explicit statement, that the people of Iraq want the same dignity and worth as the residents of the American colonies two centuries ago. The philosophical stance that we share is a humanist one, and to my mind it does you credit to enunciate it so clearly.

However, is it not so that our present administration has explicitly rejected humanism, whether broadly or narrowly conceived? Are not the courageous, intelligent, almost preternaturally mentally agile hijackiers of September 11 characterized as "evil", as if that is enough to explain their motivation?

It seems to me that if you expect people to act in a humanist manner you would do well to address your recommendation to those who accept kinship with all human beings rather than those who assert, and in tones of breathtaking arrogance, their own special superiority.