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Predictably, the U.S. news media are full of discussion and debate about this weekend’s election in Iraq. Unfortunately, virtually all the commentary misses a simple point: There will be no "election" on Jan. 30 in Iraq, if that term is meant to suggest an even remotely democratic process.
Many Iraqis casting votes will be understandably grateful for the opportunity. But the conditions under which those votes will be cast — as well as the larger context — bear more similarity to a slowly unfolding hostage tragedy than an exercise in democracy. We refer not to the hostages taken by various armed factions in Iraq, but the way in which U.S. policymakers are holding the entire Iraqi population hostage to U.S. designs for domination of the region.
This is an election that U.S. policymakers were forced to accept and now hope can entrench their power, not displace it. They seek not an election that will lead to a U.S. withdrawal, but one that will bolster their ability to make a case for staying indefinitely.
This is crucial for anti-empire activists to keep in mind as the mainstream media begins to give us pictures of long lines at polling places to show how much Iraqis support this election and to repeat the Bush administration line about bringing freedom to a part of the world starved for democracy. Those media reports also will give some space to those critics who remain comfortably within the permissible ideological limits — that is, those who agree that the U.S. aim is freedom for Iraq and, therefore, are allowed to quibble with a few minor aspects of administration policy.
The task of activists who step outside those limits is to point out a painfully obvious fact, and therefore one that is unspeakable in the mainstream: A real election cannot go on under foreign occupation in which the electoral process is managed by the occupiers who have clear preferences in the outcome.
That’s why the U.S.-funded programs that "nurture" the voting process have to be implemented "discreetly," in the words of a Washington Post story, to avoid giving the Iraqis who are "well versed in the region’s widely held perception of U.S. hegemony" further reason to mistrust the assumed benevolent intentions of the United States.
Post reporters Karl Vick and Robin Wright quote an Iraqi-born instructor from one of these training programs: "If you walk into a coffee shop and say, ëHi, I’m from an American organization and I’m here to help you,’ that’s not going to help. If you say you’re here to encourage democracy, they say you’re here to control the Middle East."
Perhaps "they" — those well-versed Iraqis — say that because it is an accurate assessment of policy in the Bush administration, as well as every other contemporary U.S. administration. "They" dare to suggest that the U.S. goal is effective control over the region’s oil resources. But "we" in the United States are not supposed to think, let alone say, such things; that same Post story asserts, without a hint of sarcasm, that the groups offering political training in Iraq (the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, International Republican Institute, and International Foundation for Election Systems) are "at the ambitious heart of the American effort to make Iraq a model democracy in the Arab world."
Be still my heart. To fulfill that ambition, U.S. troop strength in Iraq will remain at the current level of about 120,000 for at least two more years, according to the Army’s top operations officer. For the past two years, journalists have reported about U.S. intentions to establish anywhere from four to 14 "enduring" military bases in Iraq. Given that there are about 890 U.S. military installations around the world to provide the capacity to project power in service of the U.S. political and economic agenda, it’s not hard to imagine that planners might be interested in bases in the heart of the world’s most important energy-producing region.
But in mainstream circles, such speculation relegates one to the same category as those confused Middle Easterners with their "widely held perception of U.S. hegemony." After all, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has dismissed as "inaccurate and unfortunate" any suggestion that the United States seeks a permanent presence in Iraq. In April 2003, Rumsfeld assured us that there has been "zero discussion" among senior administration officials about permanent bases in Iraq.
But let’s return to reality: Whatever the long-term plans of administration officials, the occupation of Iraq has, to put it mildly, not gone as they had hoped. But rather than abandon their goals, they have adapted tactics and rhetoric. Originally the United States proposed a complex caucus system to try to avoid elections and make it easier to control the selection of a government, but the Iraqis refused to accept that scheme. Eventually U.S. planners had to accept elections and now are attempting to turn the chaotic situation on the ground to their advantage.
Ironically, the instability and violence may boost the chances of the United States’ favored candidate, U.S.-appointed interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. While most electoral slates are unable to campaign or even release their candidates’ names because of the violence, Allawi can present himself as a symbol of strength, running an expensive television campaign while protected by security forces. He has access to firepower and reconstruction funds, which may prove appealing to many ordinary Iraqis who, understandably, want the electricity to flow and the kidnappings and violence to stop.
Of course the United States can’t guarantee the favored candidate will prevail. But whoever is in the leadership slot in Iraq will understand certain unavoidable realities of power. As the New York Times put it — in the delicate fashion appropriate to the Times — the recent announcement by Shi’a leaders that any government it forms would not be overtly Islamic was partly in response to Iraqi public opinion. But, as reporter Dexter Filkins reminded readers, U.S. officials "wield vast influence" and "would be troubled by an overtly Islamist government." And no one wants troubled U.S. officials, even Iraqi nationalists who hate the U.S. occupation but can look around and see who has the guns.
The realities on the ground may eventually mean that even with all those guns, the United States cannot impose a pro-U.S. government in Iraq. It may have to switch strategies again. But, no matter how many times Bush speaks of his fondness for freedom and no matter what games the planners play, we should not waver in an honest analysis of the real motivations of policymakers. To pretend that the United States might, underneath it all, truly want a real democracy in Iraq — one that actually would be free to follow the will of the people — is to ignore evidence, logic and history.
As blogger Zeynep Toufe put it: "All these precious words have now become something akin to brand names: "democracy," "freedom," "liberty," "empowerment." They don’t really mean anything; they’re just the names attached to things we do."
Right now, one of the things that U.S. policymakers do is to allow Iraqis to cast ballots under extremely constrained conditions. But whatever the results on Jan. 30, it will not be an election, if by "election" we mean a process through which people have a meaningful opportunity to select representatives who can set public policy free of external constraint. The casting of ballots will not create a legitimate Iraqi government. Such a government is possible only when Iraqis have real control over their own future. And that will come only when the United States is gone.
Robert Jensen is on the board and Pat Youngblood is coordinator of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin, TX. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org