Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Oh, THAT Democracy

Democracy is hard work, as we don't need our President to remind us. We see horrific, broad-daylight executions of Iraqi election workers. The dioxin-scarred Ukrainian opposition candidate lives to fight another day, and protesters courageously stand up against the rigged election and secret police. (Although how risky was opposition, really? The secret police apparently didn't know dioxin wasn't an absolutely fatal poison, and the scenes of resisters making out in the square looked like a foreign remake of "When Grigoriy Met Svetlana.") In Spain, voters either caved to the terrorists or spanked the incumbents for supporting the US War in Iraq, depending on your point of view. We see blacks in Ohio still standing in line at the polling....

These people are courageous, and they truly deserve America's support.

But nothing made the Administration wax rhapsodic like the elections in Afghanistan. There, too, was violence against election workers. Women voters were subjected to intimidation. Election officials estimated between 9.5 and 9.8 million eligible voters in the nation. And despite registration levels of less than 10 percent in some provinces where security was poor, it looked like the turnout might be of Chicago-like proportions:

“The Afghan people are showing extraordinary courage under difficult conditions… They’ve adopted a constitution that protects the rights of all, while honoring their nation’s most cherished traditions. More than 10 million Afghan citizens - over 4 million of them women - are now registered to vote … To any who still would question whether Muslim societies can be democratic societies, the Afghan people are giving their answer.”
- President Bush, September 21, 2004

He also lectured us about how how many young girls in Afghanistan were finally able to return to school, as if that's why we'd sent troops there in the first place. Even when he has a good point, why does he turn around and make it so self-righteous?

We should be hailing free elections and renewed educational opportunity in Afghanistan (see Link below), but it's still tempting to ridicule the President's commitment to democracy and women's rights—because of those other free elections.

No, not the ones in Kosovo and Serbia. I'm talking about the new nationwide elections being staged by our friends and allies, Saudi Arabia.

Voter registration for the Feb. 10 local elections—the first in the country's history—is underwhelming. In the first month since registration opened in the Riyadh area, about 1/6th of eligible voters had bothered to register. And Saudi women will not be the poster children of this election. They're barred from voting. To anyone who would question whether Muslim societies can be democratic societies, the Saudis are giving their answer, too.

Yes, democracy is hard work. Thank god there are lots of former enemies out there willing to give it a try.


Blogger Gustave said...

This is fascinating...I hadn't heard a thing about any Saudi elections, and a quick search on cnn.com yielded nothing.

Our democracy project in the Middle East is in dire need of some visionary, big-picture leadership. We need to step back and adopt a wider perspective of the dynamics at work in Iraq and the greater Middle East.

Consider that Iraq was cobbled together by the British as part of the spoils from WWI. It wasn't formed along neat ethnic boundaries, but rather three very differnt provinces--Kurd, Sunni, and Shiite--were squeezed together into Iraq to help form a contiguous stretch of British-controlled lands from Europe to the empire's crown jewel: India. Iraq was created out of commercial interests, not the people's will.

80 years later, we're surprised at the lack of nationalism in Iraq. We're surprised that Iraqi troops fighting under the country's flag are prone to desertion. Yet, other Iraqis seem willing to fight to the death--even blow themselves up--when fighting under a cleric's orders. We don't understand, because in this country we have a grand tradition of putting our country first. Our allegiance is to our flag.

Their allegiance, given the tortuous history of their country, is to their ethnicity. Shiites and Kurds being oppressed by Saddam didn't feel like Iraqis, they felt like Shiites and Kurds being oppressed by Sunnis. The ethnic loyalties haven't changed, just the imperial force trying to force a country on these disparate provinces.

A visionary leader might suggest that a cookie-cutter western-style democracy might not be the best model for Iraq. A visionary leader might venture beyond the American experience of democracy and try to see the situation from a Kurdish and Shiite and Sunni perspective. Then, he/she might decide the best path to peace is disassembling the facade of Iraq and restoring the three provinces model (ala Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia).

Is this an easy solution? No, Turkey sure doesn't want any kind of independent Kurdish state on its borders. And the Shiite and Sunni provinces would likely become satellites of Iran and Saudi Arabia, respectively.

Probably not the outcome we were hoping for. But a maybe a more peaceful one. And maybe our efforts to spread human rights and representative government throughout the Middle East would be more effective if we started with the big dogs in the neighborhood--Iran and Saudi Arabia--rather than a foundering Iraq. After all, we didn't spread democracy to Eastern Europe by starting with Lithuania. It took years of glasnost and perestroika in Mother Russia to effect a change.

This very well may not be the right solution. But I'm not confident this type of thinking--"outside the box" as we say in business--is happening in the White House. All I hear from Washington are sound bytes about how "all people want to be free" and "democracy grants people their God-given right to freedom."

We are in dire need of a visionary leader...and we just re-elected a President with severe myopia.

8:55 AM  

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