Defining “democracy” down

What right does the United States have to tell the Iraqi people that they cannot be allowed to rule themselves?

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Proving again that Martin Luther King Jr. had the right idea, the peaceful demonstrations by thousands of Iraqi Shiites demanding direct elections have been a far more effective challenge to the arrogance of the U.S. occupation than the months of guerrilla violence undertaken by a Sunni-led insurgency.

Led by clerics demanding real democracy, the protests have strongly raised this question: What right does the United States have to tell people that they cannot be allowed to rule themselves?

With the stated reasons for the U.S. invasion — the imminent threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and his ties to al-Qaida — now a proven fraud, the Bush administration was left with one defense: It was bringing democracy to this corner of the Mideast. If we now fail to promptly return full sovereignty to the Iraqis, inconvenient as that outcome may be, the invasion will stand exposed as nothing more than old-fashioned imperial plunder of the region’s oil riches — and the continued occupation could devolve into civil war.

The Shiites do not require divine revelation to see through the U.S. plan to perpetuate its influence through an opaque process of caucuses designed, implemented and run by Washington and its Iraqi appointees. It is just colonial politics as usual. That’s why the conservative Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the revered cleric of Iraq’s Shiites (who make up 60 percent of the country), is requesting a transparent one-person, one-vote election.

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The United States, however, has not agreed. And a top Sistani aide recently suggested that President Bush’s opposition to a universal ballot election stemmed from a fear that his own reelection efforts could be hurt if the invasion he launched resulted in another Mideast country where ayatollahs play a major political role. Or, perhaps worse from the president’s point of view, an independent government might be so bold as to ask the United States to pull out its troops, hand back control of its oil, and dismiss billions in reconstruction contracts with corporations like Halliburton.

The White House now says that a free election is impossible because no census has been taken. Is it naive to ask why this hasn’t been done? After all, we’ve been in control of the country for nearly a year now. Couldn’t we have spent some of those billions in taxpayer dollars dedicated to Iraq to employ a few thousand Iraqis to go door-to-door with clipboards? We also are told that key Iraqis signed off on the caucus plan, yet the Washington Post writes that “there is no precise equivalent in Arabic for ‘caucus’ nor any history of caucuses in the Arab world, U.S. officials say.” Perhaps a format Iraqis might better understand could have been generated by, say, Iraqis?

The fact is, history teaches us that when foreigners forcibly intervene in another country’s affairs it is a terribly messy business that usually fails miserably. And in Iraq, which is an artificial construct of previous colonial intervention, “nation building” is a flat-out nightmare.

Our most trusted local allies, the Kurds in the north, are loudly seeking an autonomous state in a federation; the Sunni minority has grown used to a vastly disproportionate degree of power that it will not easily relinquish; and the much poorer Shiites are clearly ready to enjoy some fruits of majority rule.

Yet all this was ignored by the Pentagon intellectuals, who so cavalierly dismissed the warnings of the French and Germans — not to mention many millions of protesters at home and abroad — while convincing themselves that bringing peace and stability to Iraq would be a “cakewalk.” Now, the top U.S. general in Iraq tells us that the Iraqis “don’t want us to stay, but they don’t want us to go,” which is as good a definition of quagmire as any.

There is, of course, no guarantee that a freely elected Iraqi government would prove efficient or enlightened. But at least under a representative government, decisions would be made by the people who have to live with the consequences, rather than by self-interested foreigners. After all, isn’t that the radical idea upon which our own country was founded?

Robert Scheer is a syndicated columnist.

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