Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Promise of Freedom

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling.

We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people.

In America's ideal of freedom, citizens find the dignity and security of economic independence, instead of laboring on the edge of subsistence.

In America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character, on integrity, and tolerance toward others, and the rule of conscience in our own lives.

George W Bush, 2005 Inaugural Address

Global interdependence. Alleviating global poverty as a precursor to international security. Protecting minority rights. Tolerance. Cultural relativism. Subjecting US foreign policy to human rights concerns.

If I didn’t know better I’d say Bush has gone liberal on us. It’s little wonder Daddy Bush was pulled out of mothballs the day after the speech to assure nervous conservatives that the speech didn’t really mean anything in terms of policy.

It is not my present purpose to parse the subtext or analyze the motivations of the speech. Much could and will be written about the glaring disparities between the lofty ideals in the speech and the realities both at home and abroad of Bush’s policies and actions.

Yet as dawn prepares to rise on elections in Iraq, it is the promise Bush made of freedom that I would like to examine more closely. It is a promise that is here only being repeated. Bush has invaded Iraq. Many thousands have died. Infrastructures have been destroyed. Lives have been shattered. In return, Bush, on our collective behalf, has promised freedom.

So secure is Bush in his belief that freedom from tyranny is the highest human need, that he was willing to take upon himself the decision to liberate the Iraqi people, by force if necessary, whether they wanted it or not. He was willing to sacrifice Iraqi lives to obtain this goal. It’s hard work.

For those among us how have wrestled with and tried to reconcile the many faces of Bush, it’s hard to know where to place this idealism in the hierarchy of motivations for the war. I’m not sure it matters. Security, greed, idealism. In this instance they proved to be mutually reinforcing for Bush & Co. All of which likely made it all seem so right to Bush. On the eve of the invasion he seemed so weary from having to explain and re-explain what seemed so patently obvious to him. At that time, the promise of freedom was relatively low on the list of reasons for the war.

The naysayers kept carping on about the consequences of an invasion, the aftermath. Bush and Rumsfeld assured us that never had anyone so thoroughly prepared for the aftermath of war. Yet the anarchy and chaos that predictably followed the fall of a tyrannical dictatorship seemed to catch them off-guard and certainly unprepared. Following the “Mission Accomplished” moment, Bush was surprised to find simmering ethnic and religious tensions. It turned out that this was not the first experience of the Iraqi people with western invader/liberators. Who knew?

The security situation in Iraq started to fall apart from the day the first US bomb shocked and awed the Iraqi people. In response to the looting, quipped Rumsfeld, “Stuff happens.” And he assured us that things would simmer down soon. They never did. Nor were we ever prepared to help the process adequately. All aspects of life in Iraq and the war after the war have been profoundly impacted by the security situation. Reconstruction efforts have been severely hampered by it. Thousands of people continue to die.

In today’s elections, most of the candidates will not be named for fear of reprisal. No campaigning was possible. As “democracy” prepares to dawn in Iraq, the country is on a US enforced lock-down. The Independent Iraqi Electoral Commission, which runs the election, was established by the US before the transfer of “sovereignty” last June. It has the power to remove candidates and parties from the ballot. The location of polling places is being kept secret until the last possible moment. The assembly being elected will choose a council which will choose the new prime minister. None of the elected members of the National Assembly will represent a locality, creating the possibility of unrepresented regions of the country. The people of Falluja have not been registered to vote or given voting cards. Candidates and organizations taking part have to swear allegiance to Bremer's law. The US group, International Republican Institute, an organization linked to the US Republican Party, has been funding certain groups in Iraq in their campaigning. The next plebiscite on a permanent constitution has to be held under Bremer's law too. Any three of the eighteen governorates can veto the constitution, even if the constitution wins 90% of the total vote. Bremer ruled, and the interim governing council signed into law, that everything in Iraq is to be privatized, open to 100% foreign ownership or at least foreign leasehold for forty years. Press 'disrespect' to Allawi is banned. Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya and an unknown number of smaller outlets have been banned already for refusing to conform. These are not minor imperfections. (See this article in Electronic Iraq.)

Try to imagine what it would be like here in the US if these conditions existed at election time. In what sense can a fair election result? How can the outcome adequately reflect the will of the people? Now try to imagine that this is your country. You have to live here. The assembly that will be elected will decide on the constitution that the Iraqi people will likely need to live with for a long time. This is no small or inconsequential matter for them. Accordingly, many Iraqis have risked everything, their lives, their families, to take part in this election.

The body of Wijdan al-Khuzai, an election candidate running on a secular platform, was found near her house on Dec. 25. The sons of two other female candidates have been killed to punish their mothers for their electoral ambitions, and another female candidate was kidnapped and released only after her family paid a ransom.

And here is my point. In our bloodlust for revenge following 9-11, in our dreamy idealism of “freedom on the march,” in our rootin’ tootin’ bring ‘em on foreign policy, we seem to have forgotten – or perhaps we never knew – that lives are at stake. This is real. This is not a game. This is not a policy paper from the Heritage Foundation. We promised the Iraqi people freedom. We promised them democracy. More than a handful of people have taken us at our word and taken the elections very seriously.

If the US is going to invade a country to bring them freedom, we had damned well better be prepared do that.

I am not endorsing the invasion or even the idea of freedom brought by way of carpet bombing. But if we but if we take upon ourselves the decision to take human life in order to bring freedom to another country, we need to be able to deliver.

Yet, for the US, there is a sense that these elections are a way out for us, an exit strategy. Bush wants to have the elections, declare “Democracy Accomplished” and get the hell out - leaving behind a shattered nation and a vanishing dream of liberty. This cannot be. I realize that most progressives favor an immediate withdrawal of US forces. They realize, correctly, that our very presence at this time is destabilizing. But there is a difference between a coordinated withdrawal, bringing in an international peacekeeping force, and checking out without paying the bill.

It matters that Bush & Co never prepared for the peace. It matters that large majority of the Americans who supported the invasion never seriously considered the need to. It matters that we did not take seriously exactly what it would take to deliver to the Iraqi people what we said we wanted for them. The sham that is today’s election is a direct descendant of Rumsfeld’s light and maneuverable invasion force.

We may have invaded for domestic political reasons. We may have invaded for monetary reasons. But we invaded. We made a promise.

In 1991, having accomplished the mission of the first Gulf War, the US encouraged the Kurds in the north and others to rebel against Saddam Hussein. Believing that they had US backing many did just that. They failed to realize that this was just part of our exit strategy. We wanted Hussein gone, but weren’t prepared to do much about it at the time. Hussein’s reprisal caused millions to flee their homes and thousands to lose their lives.

It is my most sincere wish that today’s election somehow finds a way to plant the seeds of genuine Iraqi liberty. Politics be damned. I hope it works. I fear that even a modicum of success will cause us to abandon the nascent democracy – or whatever emerges. I fear that we are only searching for plausible deniability. If civil war erupts in the near future, if chaos descends, if a new dictatorship arises to take the place of the old, we appear to be looking for a way to say “Not our fault” rather than seriously worrying about what it might take to prevent that from happening.

Whatever your stance on the war, the promise of freedom cannot be as hollow as the threat of WMDs.

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