It’s Been Bloody, Deadly and Yet An Example For the Entire Middle East
The Iraqi people have voted in free and fair elections locally, nationally and provincially since Saddam Hussein was ousted by the American military in 2003. This week, Iraqis will show the Arab world once again that their hard-fought freedom and painful sacrifices are an example for all people struggling under oppressive regimes.
On January 10, 2007, President George W. Bush defied critics and ignored popular opinion and political polls throughout the United States by committing more than 20,000 additional American troops to the war in Iraq. “The Surge,” as it is commonly called, has since been credited with bringing the Iraqi people more security, less violence and greater freedoms. By July 2008, the surge was heralded as a success from Baghdad to Boston.
In originally announcing the highly controversial surge, President Bush made a nationally televised gamble to dramatically change the most important United States foreign policy of his presidency. While Bush confidently said that the surge was for a “unified, democratic federal Iraq that can govern itself, defend itself, and sustain itself, and is an ally in the War on Terror,” Democrats in Washington, DC, loudly disagreed. Bush went on to make clear that more than 20,000 American men and women would be placed throughout Baghad and the Al Anbar Province “to help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, to help them protect the local population, and to help ensure that the Iraqi forces left behind are capable of providing the security.” The president’s bold gambit was belittled and roundly mocked among liberals in the United States and Europe — as well as by the future leader of the free world.
Moments after the surge was announced, then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama announced, “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq are going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.” Future President Obama was emphatic that America should not only not add troops but that American men and women should also exit Iraq as soon as possible. In announcing his candidacy for president a month later, Obama said: “It’s time to start bringing our troops home…That’s why I have a plan that will bring our combat troops home by March of 2008.” Within months of entering the race for the White House in 2007, Obama started voting against Congressional funding for the troops and campaigning strongly for bringing the troops home.
It’s fair to say that if Barack Obama would have been president a year earlier than he was, a very different Iraq would have emerged than the one developing today. In June 2006 and September of 2007, Obama voted to bring the American troops home from Iraq. If implemented, Obama’s wish would have left the untrained Iraqi military force to deal with the sectarian violence alone. Iran, Syria and Al-Qaeda would have been left unchallenged in their efforts to destabilize Iraq and surely would have successfully fomented a civil war by moving their secret campaign to arm and entice violent factions out into the open. The more than 4,300 American soldiers who died defending freedom in Iraq and the tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis killed by the extremists’ violence would have been in vain.
But thankfully, for Iraqis who believe in democracy and crave freedom, George W. Bush ignored popular opinion and worked closely with military experts to surge Iraq forward and help put it on the path it is today. Although Iraq still sees sectarian violence and terrorist bombings all too much, there is no question that Iraq has made monumental change to its political system and in a relatively short time.
This week’s free and fair elections are yet another example of a young democracy taking hold in a country where just a few years ago real elections and campaigning were unthinkable. No country in the Middle East gives its people more freedoms than Iraq does today. NGO’s are being created weekly, a civil society has emerged to challenge the government’s decisions, demand transparency, represent minorities and bring attention to people and issues that were ignored in the past. Iraq has a free press that is unrivaled in the Arab world, unobstructed access to the Internet and a military that is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the heart of the world’s most unstable territory.
While Iraq’s very young democracy is messy, incomplete and imperfect, it is currently the envy of the Arab world. But the Western media’s impatience to see a perfectly developed democracy in Iraq has made it difficult for people to see the important progress that has been made in the seven years this month that America led a coalition to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Obama’s view that America should have given up on Iraq certainly had many supporters in the U.S. when the surge was announced. Then-Senator Joe Biden said after Bush’s televised appearance, “If he surges another 20, 30 (thousand), or whatever number he’s going to, into Baghdad, it’ll be a tragic mistake.” Then-Senator Hillary Clinton proclaimed, “Based on the president’s speech tonight, I cannot support his proposed escalation of the war in Iraq.” And
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would still be working toward her stated goal “Bringing the War to an End is my Highest Priority as Speaker.” Iraqis should be thankful that Obama, Biden, Clinton and Pelosi weren’t in charge of American foreign policy in 2007.
Because this weekend, 19 million eligible Iraqis will be able to participate in the greatest democratic exercise the Arab world has ever seen. Once again, Iraq is holding national parliamentary elections and showing the world just how far it’s come in a short period of time. Unlike in 2005’s national parliamentary election, the 6,529 candidates this time have been feverishly campaigning for months and their names will be on an open ballot. The Iraqi government has enlisted 300,000 elections officials to watch over the process at the 50,000 polling stations throughout the country, including those ballots cast outside Iraq by Iraqis living abroad. Americans are rightly proud to watch millions of Iraqis go to the polls to cast their ballots for anyone they chose. And like Americans, Iraqis will still need to petition their government, organize around issues and demand transparency even after the final ballot has been counted.
While ethnic and religious rivalry continues, the Iraqis will need to denounce sectarianism and embrace nationalism yet again. While political maneuvering, compromise, scandal and political patronage will unfortunately be a part of any democracy, Iraqis must bravely go to the polls and cast their votes to decide whether Nuri Kamal al-Maliki deserves enough seats to return as prime minister. Whoever wins, the Iraqis must also work to quickly form a new and inclusive government with a peaceful transition of its leaders. As Iraqis are learning, democracy is a constant process, not a one-time event.
But this weekend’s election reminds us, too, that Bush’s vision for democracy in the Middle East is beginning to unfold with the consecutive democratic elections in Iraq and Afghanistan. As both these countries continue to mature and fine-tune their systems, the question remains – which Arab country will be next? Who will start the long, expensive and bloody process of bringing freedom and democracy to their people?