A few columnists and commentators who questioned or opposed the invasion of Iraq, now say, having been touched by pictures of Iraqis bravely casting ballots, that George Bush was right.
Such is the persuasive power of positive propaganda, which works by focusing on true details, ignoring their ugly context, and such is the wisdom imparted by need-to-get-a-column-out thinkers.
First, much as I admire the Iraqis who voted, any human being’s sense of fear or horror is relative to his or her circumstances. People do become inured to horrible conditions. That is how they survive wars, plagues, slavery, and even death camps.
And George Bush’s Iraq is a pretty horrible place. Not just a bloody invasion but civil chaos have worked to make it so, and Iraqis were already hardened to horrors by the decade-long American embargo and the devastation of the first Gulf War.
Second, the Iraqi election was only a tiny step in a long and highly uncertain journey through an uncharted land. No one knows whether democracy will become established soon in Iraq. It is possible to make a strong argument that the invasion will prove to have delayed the ultimate coming of meaningful democracy to Iraq. Before the first Gulf War, Iraq was the most advanced and thriving of Arab states. There was a growing, educated middle class who would certainly have shed absolute government before very long. Much of what they achieved lies in ruins today.
Third, democracy, even if it should be achieved in Iraq, does not imply a magical state of human freedom. It matters in a democracy who writes the rules, who has the vote, and what are the attitudes and intentions of the majority. Democracies have demonstrated time and again they are just as capable of brutality and injustice as other forms of government. The original intention of the Bill of Rights in the American Constitution was to protect minorities against the will of a malicious majority, but in a number of terrible examples it failed utterly to do so for two centuries because it was simply ignored.
Many democracies have not had even paper protections for individuals. There could be no written protections for British subjects under the Empire. How could you define freedoms for those living under colonialism? Israel doesn’t have a Bill of Rights. How could you have a meaningful one in a country where religion pretty much defines citizenship? Apartheid South Africa was a democracy for those qualified to vote but could afford no broad protections to its residents.
Fourth, the enthusiastic participants in the Iraqi election were Kurds and Shiites. The motivating interests of each of these groups today does not necessarily reflect conditions for stable Iraqi democracy.
The Kurds, roughly 20% of the population and non-Arabic Sunni Moslems, have an intense desire for independence, a fact the U.S. has used to exploit this unfortunate people more than once into supporting its aims. But Kurdish independence is not possible. When modern Iraq was created by the British, the northern (Kurdish) area was included because it had oil, because it grew grain for much of what is modern Iraq, and because it had no natural defensive barriers. Independence for the Kurds also would be intolerable to Turkey whose own sizeable population of Kurds has caused much civil unrest and would be inflamed by the possibilities of such an event.
Shia Moslems, people with a strong Arab identity in Iraq, are the majority of Iraq’s population. They were suppressed by Hussein, but his behavior was not unique. The Ottomans (Sunni Turks) ruled the area more than a century ago and did not trust the Shia. Local Sunni were given the important posts under the Ottoman Empire. The British followed the same practice, and Hussein only continued a long-established policy.
The great dilemma for the Shia today is that if they wish to govern and overcome their history of being suppressed, they must do so under the shadow of American power. So we have to ask how a government representing about 60% of the national population, ruling under the sufferance of foreign occupation, can be meaningfully democratic? Does the situation not parallel in many respects the rule of the Protestants in Northern Ireland under the power of Great Britain? How stable has that been?
Although the Shia of Iraq have a different ethnic identity than the Shia of Iran, they necessarily share many interests and sympathies. Hardly a day passes that Bush’s government doesn’t threaten Iran over weapons or the supposed movement of agents and volunteers into Iraq.
The most profound reason for rejecting favorable judgment of Bush’s policy comes from a brief thought-experiment. Iraqi losses have been convincingly measured at a hundred thousand dead. Hundreds of thousands more were maimed or wounded. Millions were reduced to no means of earning a living. The total loss and devastation are comparable to America’s dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and likely exceed it.
Those who say Bush was right are telling us that it was a sound decision to drop an atomic bomb just to change the government of Iraq, a government that was no longer a threat to anyone outside its borders.
Now consider the American government encouraged by such facile judgments. It consists of an almost cult-like group of rich and arrogant people who cannot spend money fast enough on their military, despite the country’s having no seriously-threatening opponents. It even is funding a new generation of nuclear weapons, sometimes described as "useable." The members of this cult-like group generally themselves avoided military service and show little concern for the welfare of others, even the ordinary people of their own land.