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July 11, 2008

Democracy Comes to Iraq (Should We Try It Here?)

By Gregg Gordon

The negotiations over the Status of Forces Agreement show the Iraqis are getting the hang of this democracy thing. Now if only we could.


When George Bush, American president and self-annointed decider, first decided to decide to have the US Army bestow democracy on the nation of Iraq -- like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky -- a lot of us were skeptical.

"It's all about avenging his daddy," we said.

"It's all about imperialism and enriching the Military-Industrial Complex," we said.

"It's about the oil."

It just didn't make sense. After all, if they really believed in democracy, wouldn't they have insisted on counting all the votes in Florida, and abided by the results? Besides, you can't impose democracy at the point of a gun. Democracy is more than elections. Saddam had "elections." Democracy requires values, traditions, and institutions that require centuries to build. There was no history of it in Iraq.

But this week, humbly but gladly, I've had to take it all back. Democracy has indeed come to Iraq, and it could not have been made clearer than when prime minister Nouri al-Maliki told 150,000 foreign troops occupying his country and their commander-in-chief: You have to leave.

At issue is the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA, as in, we intend to recline here a while) governing the US military presence in Iraq, which must be negotiated between our two countries before the end of the year. The UN mandate legalizing our mission expires then, and without some new legal cover, our continuing to occupy that country would be nothing more than--an occupation.

But democracy is the theory that government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. The leaders either do what the people want or they're replaced by ones who will. It's a simple concept.

And if the roadside bombs haven't been enough of a clue, scientific opinion polls -- the most recent one in March -- have also consistently shown the people of Iraq don't want us there.

It seems that 79% of Iraqis have little or no confidence in US troops; 70% think we have done "quite a bad job" or "a very bad job;" only a third think the surge has improved security, and even lower numbers think it has improved the economy or political dialogue; overall, 72% oppose our presence, more than half of those "strongly" opposing it (plus or minus 2.5%).

Elections are scheduled for this fall, and this is what even Arabic-speaking political insiders refer to as "a no-brainer." No one's going to win an election by agreeing to the continued occupation by foreigners, to be ended only when the foreigners decide it's time. And especially not under the terms the Bush administration is seeking, which according to news reports, basically come down to "we can keep as many people here as we want, and they can go wherever they want, whenever they want, doing whatever they want to whoever they want, and you will have nothing to say about it."

So give Maliki credit. He's telling his people, "Vote for me and my allies, and we'll see to it that they leave." They're getting the hang of it. And coming so soon after the Fourth of July, I found it inspiring.

The Bush administration's response to this news can only be described as "shock and awe." The first reaction from the State Department's spokesman was, in effect, "This must be a mistake" (those being reportedly the precise words uttered by King George III the first time he heard about our own Declaration of Independence).

But Maliki's statements were followed the next day by even more forceful ones from his National Security Counselor, and these right after consultations with Iraq's most revered religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. No mistake, it seems.

Since then, the administration seems to have been all but struck speechless, and the decider has decided to proceed as if this wasn't happening. After all, it can't be happening. Who are the Iraqis to decide when they're safe enough for us to leave?

I always read The New York Times, if not to find out what's going on, at least to find out what I'm supposed to think is going on, and so it provided a helpful analysis from Steven Lee Myers.

Writing with all the insight of someone from an observation post in Washington, Myers assures us that the Iraqis don't really mean it, and "few in Iraq believe that it would be safe" for the Americans to leave ("few" in this case meaning "only about two-thirds"). These statements merely prove that Iraqi democracy has "matured" to the point where politicians must "pander to important constituencies" (the Times' own deep respect for democracy is showing here), and everyone "quietly" agrees to the need for our presence.

Did you ever wonder why newsmakers save their most sincere beliefs to be delivered in whispers, or even telepathically?

But this is Iraq, where no Western reporter dares leave his bungalow, and both their government and ours are about as transparent as a piece of obsidian. So who knows what's really going on? I wouldn't begin to predict where this is headed. All they've asked for is a timetable, and that could be anything from Barack Obama's 16 monthsJohn McCain's 100 years. The devil is always in the details. I'm sure pallets of money are being moved as we speak.

But the whole thing got me to thinking about an interesting parallel. For not only do the Iraqi people want American troops to leave Iraq. Americans want American troops to leave Iraq, too.

But while Iraqi public opinion has led to their politicians promising to make us leave, American public opinion has led to our politicians committing$162 billion more to keeping us there until -- well, until the next time they need more money to keep us there.

I find it a bit embarrassing for the world's oldest democracy to be so demonstrably less responsive to the will of its people than a country which has undergone several years of the most ghastly civil strife, prior to which it was under the iron grip of one of the world's most ruthless dictators. But there it is. That proud heir to the legacy of our Founding Fathers, vice president Dick Cheney, could not have put it better: "So?"

Of course, by the analysis of The New York Times, this only means our democracy has "matured."

I'll say. It's matured to the point one could be forgiven for thinking it died.

Either our politicians are dumber than the Iraqis, or they think we are.

Or then again, maybe it's not really about democracy. Maybe it's just about the oil.

Authors Bio:
Gregg Gordon is a writer, musician, activist, and otherwise ne'er-do-well in Columbus, Ohio.

"Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little." - Edmund Burke