Thursday, January 27, 2005

Electing Iraq

The Iraqi elections offer me a little cause for hope. More than anything else I want to see Iraq become a modern secular state. Electing a government, even one with questionable legitimacy, is an important step toward that goal. Iraq’s religious and ethnic conflicts can only be resolved by Iraqis. Foreign occupiers won’t do. At best the occupiers can define the process toward building a national polity but outsiders will not be able to broker interests, disputes and long held grudges in a culture that is not their own. Only Iraqis themselves can do this. After 80 years of Sunni Arab dominance culminating in three decades of Saddam Hussein’s murderous megalomania, Iraqis have much anger, fear, bitterness and hatred to overcome.

All that notwithstanding, elections offer the small hope that Iraqis will be able to overcome this tragic legacy and build a new polity. At a minimum, an elected government will have a level of credibility that the interim government, appointed by occupation authorities, does not. That weak mantle may offer sufficient leverage for reaching out to the Sunni resistance to begin working out the accommodations that will allow all Iraqis, whatever their tribal or religious affiliation, to live together in peace and security. If the new government can restore basic services and establish civil order, it may well have the opening necessary to make the needed reconciliation.

The Washington Post reports that Iraqis are eager to participate in the elections. After 50 years of dictatorship, that’s not surprising. Only their fear of the increasing violence and resentment at foreign occupation forces limits their eagerness. The Post article describes efforts by American funded groups to assist parties and individuals in learning how to organize and campaign. Interest is high, even to the point of attending a seminar despite a suicide bomb attack on the location. These efforts, which have trained representatives from all the parties and many individuals participating in the elections, may be the United States’ most significant contribution to Iraq. The ideas and skills learned and tested in this election are a resource that can be employed again and again as Iraqis give birth to their new government. That is cause for some hope.

Any positive results from this exercise in nation building will depend on Iraqi leaders’ ability to deal honestly and sensitively (Note to Dick Cheney: Here’s that word again. I use it because it represents a key skill in resolving differences. You should try it some time.) with the many grievances and hatreds arising from Iraq’s bloody, repressive history. Elections, even if successful, only change the venue for this needed process from a “puppet” regime to one representing many, but not all, Iraqis. The issues remain the same and will require great courage and skill to overcome. No foreign occupier, no electoral process can provide that courage and skill. It must come from the Iraqi people and their leaders.

That is a much more difficult task. Iraqi history since its liberation from the Ottoman Empire does not offer many examples of conciliation and consensus. Most disputes have been “resolved” at the point of a gun. Nor do the prejudiced views of some Sunnis provide much hope for progress. (To them, the prospect of a Shi’ite dominated government must seem as frightening as Reconstruction governments did to the defeated Confederates after the American own civil war.) On the other hand, Iraqi bloggers have often noted that individually Iraqis do coexist, even intermarrying among the various ethnic groups. Usually, individuals are much better at reaching out to each other than are their leaders. Perhaps individual Iraqis, each acting in their own lives, can in combination with an elected government begin the reconciliation that will bring peace and stability to their homeland. I hope so.

This, of course, is what most Americans hoped would result from our invasion. Americans did not, however, expect that the process would take so long, cost so much or wreak so much death and destruction on Iraq. I like to think that, had Americans known the costs, we would have demanded that our government look for better alternatives. I like to think that. But instead Americans acquiesced to the distortions perpetrated by BushCheney and marched into war without giving the decision much real thought. Now, after two years, the best America can offer Iraq is a questionable election that has little prospect for resolving its conflicts.

Update: As noted above, training Iraqis in election skills may add a dynamic to Iraqi politics. Juan Cole a also sees a similar result at the macro level.
“...There are, of course, lots of elections in the Arab world. Some are more rigged than others. But there are almost no elections where the sitting prime minister and his party would be allowed to be turned out unexpectedly by an unpredictable and uncontrolled electorate. If Iraqi interim Prime Minister Allawi's list does poorly and his political star falls as a result of a popular vote, something democratic will have happened in Iraq, for all the serious problems with the elections."

Monday, January 24, 2005

Words. Words. Words.

BushCheney’s inaugural address is wrapped in the rhetoric of freedom and liberty, words that camouflage the brutal reality and failure of his foreign policies. It’s a clever device. Who can argue that the United States should not stand for freedom and liberty. Those are core values for this nation. Freedom and liberty are important to human dignity. The United States has articulated and often lived those values in its short history as a nation. The ideals recognize the inherent, inalienable worth of all human beings. A world where all decisions and actions respect individual dignity would be far superior to the one in which we live now.

So then, why do I scoff at BushCheney’s words? I’m skeptical because the administration’s methods and actions do not respect other nations and their peoples. BushCheney is the arbiter of America’s interests, which will be pursued even to the detriment of others whose only option is to be “with us or against us.” Thus, he has given the world a war that is killing Iraqis, destroying their homes, businesses and public infrastructure. All in the name of “National Security” but which, in fact, weakens our security as more and more Iraqis come to hate and resent America as the foreign occupier.

BushCheney claims to be laying out a vision, a framework for articulating policies and relations with other nations. Their vision does not require armed intervention but rather it defines what the United States will expect of its world partners if they wish to maintain good relations with this nation. That vision is powerful in that it offers consistent criteria for establishing policy. But it lacks an important element: reciprocity. If the US can make demands of other nations, the reverse is also true. Other nations have the right to make demands of the United States. That part of freedom and liberty does not fit into BushCheney’s rhetoric. His actions during the past four years demonstrate little willingness to work with other nations in resolving international problems unless those nations are willing to accept and approve BushCheney’s policies without criticism or comment.

BushCheney sought to stir America’s soul with a crusade for liberty and freedom. In the best messianic tradition of American politics, he invokes the image of this nation as the Beacon of Liberty that must always shine out to an oppressed world. That is a long tradition in America but it is also one that has bedeviled the US in its relations with other nations. BushCheney’s inaugural speech was “Wilsonian” in its call for freedom. BushCheney’s vision of a world without repression is much like Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a “world safe for democracy.” Wilson’s efforts largely failed. Although brought the rhetoric of democracy to the world stage, his ideals lost out to European realpolitik and isolationism at home.

Isolation continues to plague America in the world. Unlike the 1920's when Americans just didn’t care about affairs beyond our borders and felt secure behind our ocean shields, Americans in 2005 do care. We care a lot and we know that our geography no longer protects us. However, we are still isolated by our ignorance of the world, by how little we know of others’ histories, cultures and traditions. America as an actor on the world stage has all the moves but does not know how to use them effectively on that stage. The irony is that the most powerful nation on earth is indeed the “pitiful, helpless giant” that Richard Nixon feared. Our capability is not matched by the knowledge and understanding that would enable us to use that capability effectively.

The United States as the missionary of democracy is a role that is best played carefully and with nuance in the world. Most nations, like most individuals, do not like being lectured to or humiliated. They see American certainty and demands as arrogance and interference. Time, patience and understanding are better ways to convey the ideals of human rights and dignity. Unfortunately, these are not characteristics of relations among nations, especially the United States. Actions, especially unfortunate ones, always speak louder than words. So far, BushCheney has not demonstrated that he can engage the world constructively. America’s low standing in the world today is a sad testament to his BushCheney’s stunning incompetence. So, too, are the thousands who have died at his hands.

Fighting It Out Along Ideological Lines

The debate over Social Security is really a debate about the nature of the system itself, about whether a government program is an appropriate way to assist individuals in their old age. Republicans say government has no role in providing financial support for older Americans, that it is not consistent with a nation of free individuals. I say just the opposite. That a government program like Social Security is not only consistent with the purposes of the Constitution but it is also a highly effective means to address a persistent threat to human dignity. Social Security has reduced poverty among senior citizens, allowing many to live their later years in some comfort. It also supports those who already have much but that’s a lesser issue to be addressed if the system survives the assault of the wingnut ideologues.

Social Security has been the fortunate beneficiary of an era of US economic growth and prosperity. During that time, however, changes in the US and world economy have created a variety of social security “crises.” As a twenty something salaried workers, I and my colleagues were skeptical that we would ever see anything from Social Security. A similar “crisis” in the 1980's spurred further doubts. Each time, however, Congress and the President made necessary adjustments, including tax increases, to maintain the program’s solvency. As a result, Social Security is funded through 2042 or 2052, well beyond my expected lifetime. Of course, after 2018, Social Security will have to redeem some of the billions it has loaned the government to finance the Reagan and Bush deficits. Maybe the real crisis is that BushCheney fears or knows that the money will not be there.

One analyst has noted that the debate is not about numbers. It’s an ideological one wherein Republicans reject the idea of public social insurance. In a recent interview George W.Bush said that he wants to offer workers “a private account that they can call their own, a private account they can pass on to the next generation, and a private account that government can't take away." (empahsis mine). Instead he offers an account that Wall Street can vaporize in a moment, an account that may cost 30 times as much as Social Security to administer. That’s the Republican concept of general welfare. Let them argue for it.

I differ strongly, believing as I do in the validity of community action at all levels. To me Social Security is a valuable legacy to future generations. No, I can’t leave a personal account to my heirs but I can leave them with some assurance that life’s vagaries will not wipe them out when they can no longer work. And that’s what Social Security does for Americans. It offers some certainty and reliability in an uncertain world. It offers some protection to citizens at a vulnerable time in their lives. As much as anything the US government does under the authority of the Constitution, Social Security flows from the purposes (” promote the General Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity...”) stated in that document’s Preamble.

Two concepts for life in 21st Century America are in competition in this debate. Neither concept is new, nor is the debatae. How best to promote general welfare and individual liberty has been at issue since the before the founding of this republic. The individualists want to keep all that they earn or amass for their own purposes which, ideally will include contributions to and support of the communities in which they thrive. The choice is always an individual one. On the other side are communitarians, including me, who believe that wealth is amassed and secure only in an organized society which provides the legal framework and necessary force to protect its citizens. Wealth’s debt to society arises from the support it receives from the society and, as a result, society can legitimately claim some portion of that wealth for public and social purposes.

The Republicans have made war on the idea that government has much of a legitimate role in modern America. “Too bureaucratic,” “too easily swayed by special interests” they say. What they fail to see is how government protects wealth and the wealthy. Not only does government provide laws, police, judges and courts to ensure security, it also acts to moderate forces that can lead to chaos and destruction that threaten wealth and property. France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 provide dire examples of what may happen when only property and wealth benefit from government. America in the 1930's faced similar challenges that were averted only by timely, creative action by the Roosevelt Administration.

Social Security was a hallmark of those actions, offering Americans an alternative to the prospect of poverty in old age. Social Security returned a small part of the wealth created by Americans to them in the form of hope in their later years. Nothing that BushCheney has offered is comparable. The “personal accounts” are little more than an assault on the community values that underlie the Social Security System. Some individuals will gain. The community will lose.

The debate about Social Security is an ideological one. My beliefs are best stated in the words of Franklin Roosevelt’s second inaugural address in 1937:

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Baghdad Two Years On

As seen by Riverbend at “Baghdad Burning.”

“There hasn’t been a drop of water in the faucets for six days. six days. Even at the beginning of the occupation, when the water would disappear in the summer, there was always a trickle that would come from one of the pipes in the garden. Now, even that is gone....”

“Water is like peace- you never really know just how valuable it is until someone takes it away. It’s maddening to walk up to the sink, turn one of the faucets and hear the pipes groan with nothing. The toilets don’t function… the dishes sit piled up until two of us can manage to do them- one scrubbing and rinsing and the other pouring the water.... “

“It's amazing how as things get worse, you begin to require less and less. We have a saying for that in Iraq, ‘Ili yishoof il mawt, yirdha bil iskhooneh.’ Which means, "If you see death, you settle for a fever." We've given up on democracy, security and even electricity. Just bring back the water.”