Until last Monday, I was an undecided voter. I agreed with friends, Republicans and Democrats alike, that Iraq is the central issue of this election. But I teetered nonetheless, as put off by the Bush administration’s determination to stay the course when the course has proven so disastrous, as I was suspicious that the Democrats lacked a credible alternate plan to stem the hemorrhage.
Republican friends tried to convince me–albeit in hushed tones–that I should vote for President Bush because although he won’t say so, he knows his trusted circle of advisors have let him down on Iraq. He knows they were wrong when they told him we would find weapons of mass destruction. He knows, as the bipartisan 9-11 commission report has confirmed, there is ‘no credible evidence’ that Saddam Hussein helped al-Qaeda to target the United States. And as the costs continue to escalate beyond 1,000 Americans dead, 7,000 Americans maimed (no need to mention Iraqi casualties, we don’t count them) and $200 Billion evaporated, he knows that Iraq wasn’t the slam-dunk rice-and-petals cakewalk they assured him it would be. He knows, the wisdom goes, but he won’t hold them accountable until after the election, because admitting egregious judgment now would be bad politics. (I think not admitting it now is worse). It’s a timing thing, I’m told: A second-term president free of re-election concerns is beholden to none. I don’t agree, because the party isn’t. I don’t believe this leopard will shed his spots; instead I picture a leopard’s fate amid a pack of hyenas.
My Democrat friends didn’t know what to tell me because their party hadn’t told them. They were rudderless, certain only of turbulence on the right, but unnerved by wind shifts on the left. I’m thinking: if you can’t dazzle them, baffle them.
It all ended on Monday, when John Kerry articulated his grand strategy du jour for Iraq: Convince other nations to get more involved, do a better job of training Iraqi security forces, provide benefits to the Iraqi people and ensure democratic elections will be held next year. Sounds to me he wants to do what Bush wants to do, only better.
Facing a decaying forest, our two candidates focus on reviving a select few trees; they only differ on how much water to use. They both appear to realize we cannot re-invent Iraq in our image without first winning the battle for hearts and minds. But neither seems to understand that the hearts and minds do not divorce our behavior in Iraq from our policy in the region as a whole. Bush and Kerry have yet to grasp that in the Middle East, selective democratization by American force is a doomed enterprise for a simple reason: the widespread universal belief that a person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person. Set aside the question of just how ‘nice’ America has been to Iraq. As long as we defer to Israel, as long as we sanction Syria for not withdrawing its troops from Lebanon even as we bankroll Israeli troops occupying Syrian land, as long as we befriend authoritarian Arab dictators who bow to our will, our peals for democracy in Iraq ring hollow. It would be hard enough selling democracy to our friends, let alone imposing it on our enemies. Imagine trying to convince the Israelis and Saudis to abolish their state-sanctioned laws and practices that discriminate on the basis of religion or sex!
We can waste thousands more American and Iraqi lives and untold additional hundreds of billions of dollars, but given the track record, how many of us really believe Iraq will be a stable pro-American democracy by, say, the election of 2008?
Of more immediate concern is the race of 2004. The strategic Middle East policy tilt of the Republican party will continue to cater to its base of fundamentalist right-wing Christian Zionists (no small irony that the word ‘Qaeda’ means ‘base’), its tactics charted under the corrosive influence of pro-Likud neoconservative ideologues. As for the Democrats, I might have been tempted by a paradigm shift toward an American-centric foreign policy in the Middle East.
Given what is at stake for our nation, it is not Iraq per se, but our Mid-East foreign policy that is the central issue of this election. Until last Monday, I was an undecided voter. Now I’m a despairing one.
TARIF ABBOUSHI lives in Houston. He can be reached at: TAbboushi@aol.com