August 11, 2004
The news out of Iraq seems to get worse every day. To be sure, the horrific footage we see may not be giving us a full and complete picture of everything that’s really happening on the ground. But even if we consider whatever good news we might be able to find — or imagine — at the present time the general consensus is that America is failing, and perhaps has already failed, in Iraq.
Militants are beheading hostages. Frightened U.S. allies are pulling up stakes and backing away from previous offers to assist in securing and rebuilding the country. The invasion has left Iraq chaotic and broken. Iraqi doctors and other professionals, the people most needed to make a nation work, are fleeing the country. Clearly not what supporters of the war had in mind. What happens next is anyone’s guess. But one thing seems pretty clear: a stable, functioning Iraqi democracy operating under the rule of law is not on the horizon.
What could have been done to prevent this tragic turn of events?
The invasion aside, I think the biggest mistake the Bush administration made was that it did not schedule an election plebiscite about the future of Iraq immediately after the occupation began.
I bet I’m not the only person who thought such an election was a given. Why? Because there was nothing else the Bush administration could have done, no other course of action, that would have allowed it to keep the promise it made to America, Iraq and the world.
What is a plebiscite and why should there have been a U.S. or U.N.-sponsored plebiscite in Iraq?
A plebiscite, or referendum, is a special type of issue-oriented election. For example, the Iraqi people could, and should, have been asked the following simple question:
“What kind of a government do you want to have?”
Two options might have been offered:
A) I want a free and open democracy, with respect for human rights and freedom to worship, protection for the rights of women, free public education for all, and freedom of speech and press.
B) I want an Islamic religious dictatorship.
The U.S. had a significant advantage immediately after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The Bush team could have given Iraq what it promised: a chance to decide its own future. In the time during the six to 12 months leading up to the plebiscite the U.S. could have helped kickstart a new pro-democracy movement in Iraq by cultivating and supporting a new generation of indigenous champions of democracy. Doing so would have enabled those same people to garner support and contest for official government posts in a subsequent election if option “A” had come out on top.
On the other hand, if option “B” were selected the U.S. would have had no choice but to turn the country over to the most responsible religious leaders it could find.
This strategy would have allowed Iraqis to ponder their own future and decide for themselves, which is the very essence of democracy. Yes, the U.S. would have certainly preferred option A and it would have been a setback if option B won. But that’s how democracy works. You win some and you lose some.
Either way, though, a widely despised dictator would have been toppled and Iraq returned to its people. That would have won the United States the respect of the world and sent shivers down the spines of other dictators. But it would have required that the Bush administration keep its word.
Instead, the Bush administration shed rivers of blood to give the Iraqi people a puppet government and called it sovereignty. Many Iraqis are reacting to this exactly the same way Americans would react if another country installed a federal administration for us.
There are some who say the Iraqi people were not ready for democracy immediately after the invasion. That may be true. But they certainly were ready to have an election scheduled. Having an election to look forward to could have changed the whole dynamic in post-invasion Iraq. Instead of jockeying for power by playing a corrupt, influencing peddling, insiders game, Iraqi leaders would have been preparing for the election and rounding up support. Meanwhile, within the country the outcome of the election would have been the public’s primary concern, not the malignant suspicions about U.S. motivations that have since metastazised into revolt.
I keep asking myself how the Bush administration could have been so incredibly shortsighted. Why on earth didn’t they build goodwill — and show their sincerity — by immediately scheduling an election that would allow the Iraqi people to chart their own future?
And then it struck me that what we are dealing with here is really another manifestation of the same ultimately self-defeating blindspot that brought the current U.S. administration into power. President Bush and his closest advisors don’t seem to understand that in a democracy, a leader must have the consent of the governed.