Monday, January 31, 2005

Freedom Isn't Free

I've been following the news on the Iraqi elections with a lot of interest and anxiety. Actually, I've been following the news from Iraq closely since before the war ever started. I'm not exactly sure why I've been so focused on it-- I don't know anyone from Iraq, and I don't know anyone who has been sent over there to fight. (I do have an uncle and a cousin who have been sent to Afghanistan, but I haven't followed the news there nearly as much.)

Of course, like most Americans, I really did believe that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. I also think that most other countries believed it as well-- all of the national intelligence agencies were saying the same thing. (Unfortunately, the kick-backs from the Oil-for-Food program seemed to speak louder than the intelligence agencies. "OK, that seems reasonable, Saddam, a few quick 'inspections' and then we'll lift sanctions and let you go back to doing anything you want." That would have been brilliant.) At the very least, Saddam wanted everyone else to think that he had WMD, so I'm not going to waste a whole lot of time feeling bad that we took him and his sons and cronies out of power. They were all truly horrible people. Obviously, I'm not advocating that we overthrow foreign governments just because we don't like their leaders. (Who has that kind of time?) But I am saying that Saddam was essentially begging for it. If you walk up to the biggest guy on the block, start calling him names, and then threaten to beat him up, don't be all surprised if he knocks you out cold. That's just common sense. I'm just sorry that the Iraqi people have had to pay an additional price for his arrogance and insanity.

OK, so all of that aside, I will admit that it would have been nice to have had better intelligence information, and that there were probably better ways to accomplish our goals, which may or may not have involved being polite to France. And if we had to go to war, certainly it would have been great if we had been able to remove Saddam from power, maintain security, allow the Iraqis to establish their own government, and then come back home inside of a year. If frogs had wings...

So given the fact that the situation in Iraq has become such a mess, I've been increasingly troubled by the news reports and the predictions for the future. But as I've been reading some of the news stories today, I'm starting to think that maybe there are a few reasons to hope that these elections will mark a turning point. (By the way, there is a Newsweek article called The Cities Were Not Bathed in Blood by Ron Nordland that is really excellent.) So here are my thoughts on the good news from the elections:

1. There is a saying that we Americans tend toss around carelessly at Memorial Day and Veterans Day and other similar occasions. We say that "Freedom isn't Free" when we stop to think about the people who have fought for the United States. But I think that the concept applies here as well. If everything went smoothly, and there were no threats or bombs, would there have been as much celebration in Iraq yesterday? I kind of doubt it. Up until now, their government has been based on our efforts, and even assuming that we mean well, we can't just provide it to them as a gift and expect it to have value. If there was no insurgency, we could have just set up booths and said, "Come vote here. It's quick and easy." I don't think it would have been a cause for celebration. Some things just have to be purchased with something more than money.

2. The election winners aren't decided yet, but I'm glad to hear at least some cautious optimism about the likely winners. For the most part, it seems like Sistani is a pretty canny guy. He may not be a guy that we would elect for office in the United States, but he's definitely not a raving lunatic in the style of Ayatollah Khomeini. He recognizes that it's in Iraq's best interest to have a stable government that doesn't trample on the rights of the minority groups, even if they were the ones who were previously trampling on everyone else. And personally, I think it's cool that he issued a religious decree telling women to vote no matter what their husbands tell them. On top of that, it also seems like Allawi has been a good leader for Iraq, so hopefully he will be able to stick around for awhile as well.

3. There a lot of news stories that quote people as saying, "The US is here because they want to control our oil, etc, etc, etc." Now I'm sure that there is a large percentage of the Iraqi population who suspect our motives and definitely want us to leave ASAP, but I think that the elections show that despite all of the grumbling and suspicion, there is a silver lining here. If they really believed that we were planning to set up a sham government that operated under our direct supervision, would they bother risking their lives to go vote?

Finally, I would like to say (just in case anyone out there can hear me) to the people of Iraq: Today we are all cheering with you, and we are thrilled to welcome you into the family of democracy. We truly wish you all the best...

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