Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Baghdad on April 25, and upon arriving, she held a town hall meeting. Her intention seemed to be to reassure the audience that the United States will be withdrawing from Iraq, yet her Iraqi interlocutors were more interested in hearing what America will do to safeguard democracy in their country as the troops withdraw.
Clinton prefaced her remark by saying that she and President Barack Obama “are committed to Iraq. We want to see a stable, sovereign, self-reliant Iraq.” What would it have cost her to throw in the word ‘democracy’ in there?
Clinton got a question as to how democracy relates to education, another question on democracy and minority rights, and two more questions on democracy and women’s empowerment.
Yet she was only prepared to use the word ‘democracy’ intransitively, and only once, by saying “...[Iraqi] women have committed to supporting this new democracy through their votes and their actions.” Clinton concluded the session by adding, “And what I have seen over the last several years is a very strong desire on the part of most Iraqis to have a united, secure, stable, peaceful Iraq.”
Again, she wouldn’t insert the word ‘democracy’ in there somewhere, even though she had just heard four Iraqis voicing concern about their future democracy.
It seems that U.S. policy views the words ‘democracy’ and ‘Iraq’ as mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, if it is policy then it was one begun by Clinton’s predecessor, Condoleeza Rice, who in the latter years of the Bush administration began to shy away from the term.
Iraq is democratic. It has a noisy political process whereby politicians are always mindful of how their constituencies will react to their actions come election time. It managed to pass a constitution by referendum, and for the first time in the Middle East, the thorniest of issues such as sectarianism, minority rights and women’s empowerment are being debated, and voted on, by the Iraqi electorate. A vocal parliamentary opposition assails a coalition cabinet on anything from budgetary pitfalls to the abuse of prisoners. Heck, even prisoners and ex-felons are allowed to vote in Iraq, something that can’t be said about America.
Right before the last provincial elections, teams from the country’s Electoral Commission visited prisons and hospitals to explain to voter their rights, and the procedures by which their votes would be collected and counted. That’s not only a stark contrast to Iraq’s brutal totalitarian past, but a stark contrast to Iraq’s immediate neighborhood, where elections are ‘managed’ to produce the results the ruling establishment decrees (Jordan, Kuwait and Iran), are completely falsified (Syria), minority representatives are harassed (Turkey), or women are not even allowed to vote (Saudi Arabia).
Democracy in Iraq gave the modern era one of its most potent images, that of voters braving long lines while in fear of suicide bombers. The pictures of Iraqis waving around their purple-stained fingers are ones that few will ever forget. Yet despite this historic achievement, the United States—the country that should be proudest of these moments it helped bring about—is seemingly embarrassed of the newborn and democratic Iraq.
Dodging the word ‘democracy’ is not only sneaky, it is dangerous. It sends the wrong signal to the wrong sort of people. There are some officers in the Iraqi armed services listening to Clinton who are thinking to themselves, “Maybe the U.S. wouldn’t be so hostile to a military take-over.” Is Iraq to revert back to the era of the ‘strongman’? Is Iraq to regress back to being just another authoritarian regime in a region full of them?
Is that U.S. policy? Shouldn’t some members of Congress be asking these questions?