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Why Elections in Iraq Are No Panacea

All empires have their rationales for expansion and conquest. The British had their “White Man’s Burden,” the French had a “Civilizing Mission,” and the United States has preached “Manifest Destiny,” or the God-given right to spread democracy. Nowadays, in the rush to legitimize handpicked officials in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, U.S. rulers have backed elections, which they seem to equate with democracy. Certainly elections, if candidates are fairly chosen, would constitute a major component of democracy, but in the rush to legitimate new moderate heads of state and form malleable parliaments, all the other usual trappings of democratic polity have faded from view. These include the need to have an organic development of democratic practice, a strong civic society, as well as allowing for orderly give and take of competing political and social forces. These important ingredients of democracy no longer seem necessary in the rush to place loyalists in power with a mandate to rule. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, all three in the throes of war, elections have emerged as the panacea for establishing local legitimacy, while all other festering problems continue to plague the populations who have been called to the polls.

But behind imperial rationales there lurk more pertinent reasons for intrusion into other people’s lives, such as the desire for scarce resources, markets, control of strategic locations and wishes to demonstrate raw power. In more recent times, global crises, in terms of the Cold War and the War on Terrorism, have provided the United States with reasons to fight regional wars and have helped explain to a gullible population raw conquest and armed intervention and have given the United States blank checks to unleash its weapons of mass destruction. The most recent target of U.S. intervention is the Middle East, which happens to sit on the largest energy reserves in the world.

9/11 mobilized a war-weary U.S. public. The American administration, which we now know already began laying plans for overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime, almost from the moment Mr. Bush took power, had to bide their time. Instead they launched retaliation against the Taliban regime of Afghanistan, which harbored the Al-Qaeda network of terrorists. Clobbering together a coalition and aided by soldiers from the Afghan Northern Alliance, the U.S.-led forces defeated the Taliban, which vanished into the general population and took refuge along with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda in the inaccessible mountains on the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. The U.S. then created a puppet government, led by Hamid Karzai, and held the country precariously with 18,000 foreign troops. Even elections at the end of 2004, which gave Karzai 55 percent of the vote, did little to legitimize his regime. Warlords and Taliban-Al Qaeda forces still control much of Afghanistan and the opium trade, which dominates the country’s economy. The Bush administration wants us to believe that Afghanistan’s elections somehow have created a stable regime.

Once Afghanistan, a strategic crossroad between South and Central Asia, was under U.S. control, the Bush administration then concocted rationales for invading Iraq, claiming that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction that could reach the United States and allied Israel. It added that Saddam Hussein’s regime was also co-responsible for 9/11. Later investigations by Bush’s own handpicked officials proved that Saddam had destroyed his WMD and that there was little connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq on or before 9/11. Yet, a majority of the American population bought the arguments and backed the president in his 2003 war against Iraq. Amazingly, many Americans still believe these myths, despite proof to the contrary.

The war has bogged down. Over 100,000 Iraqis have lost their lives. Some 1300 American troops have been killed and a fierce insurgency takes lives of Americans and Iraqis each day. We hear little of U.S. plans for the Iraqi oil industry, an important question since the country contains the world’s second largest energy reserves after Saudi Arabia. Also, the unexplored eastern desert probably contains vast additional untapped oil and natural gas. Probably because of these reserves, the Bush administration has no workable exit strategy for their quagmire. They have set up elaborate preparations for elections in a country at war, containing 150,000 U.S. occupying troops plus 20,000 outsourced civilians and mercenaries working on the ground. Four provinces of Iraq are so unstable that election workers there fear for their lives and wonder how voting may be held on January 30. Like Afghanistan, the occupiers hope to gain a semblance of legitimacy for their handpicked government and also implicate the cooperating majority of Shiites, 65 percent of the population, in the future of the resulting regime. The Arab Sunni population (20 percent of the total) fears for its future in a Shi’ite dominated Iraq and northern Kurds (about 15 percent) look forward to greater autonomy and control of the Kirkuk oil fields as a price for their adhesion to the post-election state.

In another part of the Middle East, the Palestinians just elected Mahmoud Abbas as their president, but already the new leader faces opposition on the part of radical Hamas and from within Abbas’s own faction, Fatah, over the issue of continuing attacks against Israelis or laying down arms. U.S. ally Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, knowing that Abbas has neither the power to control Hamas and other armed groups, nor the necessary political legitimacy, despite the election results which put him in power, to force his opponents to stop attacking Israel, has predictably thrown down the gauntlet, telling the Palestinian leader that he will not talk to him as long as violence continues. Instead of working together in a gesture of good will to Mr. Abbas, who has gone on record in opposition to violence and terror and favors a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the new Palestinian president has been placed in a position between a rock (his internal foes) and a hard place (Sharon’s truculence). Elections, again, cannot solve the deep long-lasting crisis that has made enemies out of these two neighbors.

Democracy entails long nurturing and cannot come about as a result of a quick fix. Other problems must be addressed before the democratic process can bear any fruit. Elections may sell well in Congress and Peoria, but they alone do not make a democratic regime. In the short term they may help, however, to maintain foreign control.