FROM AN AMERICAN INAUGURATION TO AN IRAQI ELECTION: TEN DAYS OF CONFUSION IN THE MIDDLE EAST
These words were spoken by a Shi‘i friend of mine and well sum up the desperately needed good vibes that millions of Iraqis—yes, most of them Shi‘is and Kurds, but also many Sunnis as well—felt as the election unfolded today in Iraq.
Senior officials from the Association of Muslims scholars, the main Sunni religious-political body, are not surprisingly arguing that the elections are something short of "genuine," and that even with them "our sovereignty is incomplete. Our sovereignty is usurped by foreign forces that have occupied our land and hurt our dignity. These elections... are a means of establishing the foreign forces in Iraq and keeping Iraq under the yoke of occupation. They should have been postponed." Similarly, anti-war groups and their leaders have largely condemned the elections as by definition unfree and unfair when held under conditions of occupation.
Yet however true these sentiments might be on their own terms, the reality is that they will be hard to sustain such a position today after upwards of 60% of Iraqis—that's better than most US elections—turned out to vote, including thousands of residents of Falluja. As the NY Times reported, even Arab satellite news channels like al-Arabiyya and al-Jazeera were impressed enough by the turn-out and enthusiasm of election day to focus on the elections themselves rather than their more usual fare of violence and opposition. Even the normally critical Le Monde termed today's vote not just the "Iraqi wager" but the beginning of a "historic journey" towards freedom and democracy that is unprecedented in the country's history.
Of course, first impressions can be deceiving. We all remember that wonderful video of seemingly thousands of cheering Iraqis pulling down the statue of Saddam in Firdus Square after the US invasion. How many of us saw the photos and video of the entire square, which revealed that only a few dozen Iraqis were there and it was the US military doing the heavy pulling http://globalresearch.ca/articles/NYI304A.html. Most Americans probably only remember the close up, but the larger picture warned us about what would unfold in the next twenty months.
We can't blame people for being confused and unsure of what sentiments to be feeling today. After all, it was only ten days ago that Bush put the fear of God—his god, at least—into the hearts of the Arabs and Muslims with his "extremist" (in the words of conservative scholar and Nixon Center Director Dmitri Simes) inauguration speech. The Arab press was full of talk about the "American Jihad" it heralded. Yet even here many in the Arab media, while sensing a return by Bush to the "crusader" mentality that animated the first term in the aftermath of September 11, and the inevitable discussion of the (re)new(ed) American imperialism, nevertheless longed for Bush actually to mean what he said; to walk the talk. As Abdulwahab Badrakhan commented in al-Hayat, "Who can disdain his oral defense of 'freedom'? who can reject his opposition to tyranny?" If only Bush "realizes what he said and really means it" the "second Bush [will be] good and awesome."
Most interesting was an Op/Ed by Assem Sa'ad in al-Hayat on 1/28 titled "The Philosophy of Change: Between America, Globalization and the Local," in which the author argues that the present dynamics, reflected in the convergence between the inauguration and elections, mark a show down between an Americanization of globalization that would be very bad, precisely because it would institutionalize on the global level the worst predelictions of American empire, and a true globalization of America, that would in turn help sustain a more fair and localized globalization, and at the same time make a true resolution of the Palestine problem possible. Writing in Sharq al-Awsat, Zein al-Abadeen al-Rakabi explained that responsibility needs to be shared equally between the US and the world, and that there needs to be a new program; one at the same time moral, ethical and realistic."
And it's clear that that in the mainstream Arab media, normally no friend to the US and its occupation, the sentiment was that the elections were the most important moment in Iraq's modern history and even the region's as a whole. "Yes to elections" was how one Op/Ed page put it; or more precisely, "Oh Iraqi People: The Elections are Full of Problems, But Give Them Everything You've Got!" (according to Sharq al-Awsat). What's more, as another columnist wrote, "Tomorrow will bring a new Iraq and a changing Arab world" (even as Iraq is compared to the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First world war and the US to England just waiting to partition her carcass. Sounds like George W. Bush's vision penetrating deep into the proverbial "Arab mind."
Another good sign: it's clear that the "seeds of nonviolent resistance [are being] sewn in Iraq," as the Christian Science Monitor reported http://csmonitor.com/2004/0602/p07s01-woiq.html, as more and more Iraqis understand what it's taken Palestinians decades to figure out--that violent resistance against a vastly superior military power that has no compunction about indiscriminately killing tends of thousands of people is not the best strategy for winning independence from occupation.
Of course, as the CS Monitor also reminds us, the next "big issue" in Iraq is the US exist plan, explaining that the "hoped for US outcome of the war" was "an enduring military presence" http://csmonitor.com/2005/0128/p01s03-woiq.html?s=u. But I don't agree with the Monitor that this election makes such a presence any less likely. In fact, as I've argued before, the violence and chaos leading up to today's vote has helped ensure a much longer term presence than would have otherwise been possible, not least because—similar to voters' inclination to support Bush in the midst of a war on terror—Iraqis are increasingly willing to trade some freedom and full democratic rights for a "strong leader" such as Iyad Allawi who could bring them "safety and security".
Helping grease the way for a long-term US presence is no doubt some of the $9 billion that was transferred from the US to Iraqi ministries and which is presently "unnacounted for." That's a lot of disgruntled Shi‘i and Sunni leaders that can be bought off, not to mention death squads to fund "off budget." And it's almost certain that by the time peace and stability arrive, agreements on long-term bases, tens of billions of dollars in Iraqi arms-purchases of US and British weapons, oil exploration agreements, and the wholesale privatization of large chunks of the Iraqi economy will already by a fait accompli. Then what?
The biggest story today perhaps is that, once again, it appears that the Bush Administration has outsmarted the anti-war movement (never that hard to do, given that the people running it are about as creative as John Kerry's campaign team). As I've warned for months, the clear strategy of the Bush Administration was to wreak enough havoc, cause enough chaos, and play the Sunnis and Shi‘a off each other successfully enough so that most Iraqis focus enough on issues of achieving a basic level of security and stability at all costs—just the platform run on by US favorite and current PM Allawi. At the same time the violence will surely continue, leaving any talk of withdrawal in the near future a moot question.
And how did the peace movement react to this strategy? Instead of putting people in place in Iraq soon after the invasion in order to work with Iraqis to build an alternative to the system the US would put in place, it focused all its energies on periodic mass demonstrations which had limited if any impact on US policy, leaving Iraqis to choose between US soldiers and global jihadis. If in a previous entry I discussed the notion of"kung fu chaos" or what could be called"running Iraq, drunken monkey style," the global peace and justice movement failed to learn the lessons available to anyone who's watched a Jackie Chan movie--or better, read Gramsci--and use the elections, however illegitimate their origin, to their advantage by working with Iraqis to build a consensus for a political program that could achieve democracy, social justice and the end of the occupation regardless of American intentions. Instead, they rigidly opposed them and are now left trying to justify this position against the pictures of millions of purple-fingered Iraqis who risked their lives to do the very thing they said was illegitimate.
Given the utter lack of actual constructive support on the ground from the anti-war/peace movement, it will not be surprising if Iraqis fail to grasp--or even care about--the disaster it will be for the movement if Bush comes out of this election appearing vindicated. It will be up to the global peace and justice movement to figure out how to deal with this latest setback; no one can blame Iraqis, and especially Shi‘a and Kurds, for making a deal with the American devil in order to secure their position as the main political forces in Iraq after decades of oppression.
In the end, whatever one's feeling about US goals in Iraq or the conduct of the occupation, at least for today everyone who cares about Iraq should have a smile, however small, on their faces.
Just in case anyone is tempted to buy into the hype about the coming "historic compromise" being advertised in recent days by Israeli PM Ariel Sharon, an article in today's Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,2763,1402261,00.html reveals how his government is using the 55-year old Absentee Property Law, originally drafted to prevent Palestinians forced out in 1948 from returning to their homes to steal Palestinian land conveniently located on the other side of the so-called security fence. This is a s brilliant a move as it is utterly immoral, as under the regulations for constructing the barrier the Government would have to pay high prices to annex the land, but with the Absentee Property Law it has to only claim military or security necessity and the property becomes state land forever, with no compensation necessary. So much for peace and reconciliation…
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Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005
Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005
Sorry to disappoint you, but the parties (Israel and the Palestinians) will probably find a way to make an agreement despite this minor detail. The intifada is over, it's time to get real about the what the possibilities of a negotiated peace entail.
Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 1/31/2005
i hope you're right but fear you're too optimistic.
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