Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Putting Their (Blue) Finger On It

Idealism has its limits. One such drawback is that its mandates can box the proponent into a rhetorical corner - constrained by the public's adoption of the very principles endorsed. Furthermore, ideas can take on a life of their own, so the embrace of lofty ideals can, in certain contexts, give rise to a thousand unplanned pregnancies. Publius at Legal Fiction made the following observation:

But idealism is a funny thing. Once invoked, it's hard to control. The rigid logical consistency that idealism both requires and demands often leads to unintended consequences - consequences that the original invoker would not support.
And so in some respects, the Bush administration has found itself at the mercy of an idealism that they seem at times uncomfortable with and increasingly unable to control. Case in point being the recent Iraqi elections, and the potential makeup of the Iraqi government that will sprout in its wake. While the rhetoric and idealistic rhapsodizing has always been about spreading "freedom" and "democracy" to the Iraqi people, the process itself has assumed its own momentum and manifested in ways that the Bush administration never intended. Tim Dunlop from The Road To Surfdom provides an overview of the best laid plans gone awry, hijacked by the idealism used to sell them in the first place:

The worst thing about being out of action last week was that I didn't get a chance to congratulate the Iraqi people on their election and their rejection of the policies of the Bush Administration.

By insisting on elections back when the Administration's plan was to bring in Ahmed Chalabi to run the joint, the Iraqis trumped Bush's inclination to install another compliant "strong man." By rejecting the Bush administration's attempt to implement an administration-written constitution, they put themselves in a position to write their own. By rejecting the administration's attempt to set up a system of appointed caucuses, they gave themselves a chance of electing their own government. By voting in overwhelming numbers--from what we can tell so far--against interim prime minister Allawi, they rejected Bush's second choice, the only candidate who had the benefit of state (that is, US) money to run a campaign, the man Bush installed and lauded on the world stage as the prime minister of Iraq when he was nothing of the sort.

Of course, this record of rejection of administration policy has somehow been turned into a vindication for Bush's policies, and the media has compliantly reported it as "good week" for the president. Precious stuff, isn't it?
It remains to be seen what form of government will be established - to what degree it embraces religiosity, to what extent it harbors hostility toward Israel, and in what manner it will seek to maintain a relationship with the United States and the 150,000-plus troops currently within its borders. But one thing is certain, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has as much to say about the future as does the Bush administration, and this through the rampaging democratic juggernaut the Bush team originally sought to guide with careful measured steps. This shifting dynamic has caused consternation for some of the Iraq campaign's advocates, as noted by Frank Smyth (via David Holiday's very worthwhile blog)

Only last month, David Ignatius, a columnist for The Washington Post, complained that by going ahead with the election the Bush administration would "help install an Iraqi government whose key leaders were trained in Iran." He went on to say "in terms of strategy," the Bush administration "is a riderless horse." In other words, the administration's original plan to install the Iraqi exile, Ahmad Chalabi, as a proxy to control both the Iraqi people and their oil has failed, and now the administration is finding its own rhetoric catching up with itself in last Sunday's election in the form of an expected Shi'ite victory.
And Smyth, elsewhere in the (highly recommended) article, about the elections:

Many anti-war critics were so busy pooh-poohing the balloting as a farce engineered by the Bush administration that they forgot that Washington had only agreed to the election under Iraqi Shi'ite pressure. The first U.S. plan for Iraq was to hold indirect elections through regional caucuses, a process that would have lent itself far more easily to American manipulation. But Iraq's Shi'ite grand ayatollah, Ali Sistani, and other Iraqis said no.
As the previously more prominent justifications for the invasion of Iraq began to fall away, the Bush team has had to lean more and more on the notions of "freedom" and "democracy." This has forced their hand in a way, and Sistani is more than willing to call their bluff. They have no one to blame but themselves. The root of the current democratic dilemmas can be found in the same pollyannic yarns spun by Ahmad Chalabi. The Bush team naively believed in the prognosis of Chalabi, and of his ability to pacify and lead Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion. They were caught off guard by the actual situation on the ground, in which an Iran-friendly Shiite cleric, who happens to be the senior spiritual leader of most Iraqis, has much more to say than an Iraqi ex-patriot who left Iraq the same year the Dodgers left Brooklyn. Go figure. Hendrik Hertzberg (also via David Holiday), in his own bid to set the record straight, alludes to the connection between the bungled postwar planning and the emergence of a democratic movement that remains outside the grasp of the Bush planners.

Critics of the Bush Administration can take comfort in the fact that the apparent success of the Iraqi election can be celebrated without having to celebrate the supposed wisdom of the Administration. Like the Homeland Security Department and the 9/11 Commission, the Iraqi election was something Bush & Co. resisted and were finally maneuvered into accepting. It wasn't their idea; it was an Iraqi idea - specifically, the idea of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Shiism's most prominent cleric. In a way, it was a by-product of the same American ignorance and bungling that produced the unchallenged post-Saddam looting and the myriad mistakes of the Coalition Provisional Authority. But this time - for the first time - the bungling seems to have yielded something positive. [emphasis added]
Which brings us to that delightful little bit of political theater that transpired last week at the State of the Union Address - the pinnacle of Bush-booster triumphalism - complete with its contrived display of solidarity via the blue stained fingers. Tim Dunlop, though, wants to remind some of the Bush administration's supporters that solidarity means more than dipping your finger in some ink:

You gave up any right to claim solidarity with the Iraqi people when you excused at every opportunity their abuse and torture in the prisons of Abu Ghraib. When that story broke, it wasn't the side of the Iraqi's you took, it was the side of the Bush administration, and you mouthed all their pathetic rationalisations from "a few bad apples" to "not as bad as Saddam."

You gave up any right to claim solidarity with the Iraqi people when you refused to acknowledge how many people had been killed in this little adventure by attacking every legitimate attempt to put a number on the deaths. It wasn't the methodology of a survey like the Lancet study that caused you concern; it was the very existence of such a study that caused you all to freak out.

...when you joined those like Donald Rumsfeld who denied the very existence an insurgency, when you mocked people for being concerned about the post-invasion looting, and when you insisted that all this fighting stuff and other bad news coming out of Iraq was just a ploy by the liberal media to mislead the world....

In other words, your concern then, like now, was domestic politics not Iraqi lives. All you had was denigration for anything that didn't comply with your fantasy picture of post-invasion Iraq.
The irony is that the same people that were bemoaning "the Left" for their excessive partisanship, which prevented some from acknowledging the importance and positivity of the elections (true enough by the way), were using the elections as a partisan hammer to bludgeon their opponents. As Threading the Needle pointed out:

...And if this was truly an act of solidarity, rather than an act of partisanship, why were no Democrats invited to participate?
Good question. By this, I don't mean to say that the Bush administration never intended Iraq to become democratic or free, just that the idealism behind this effort has begun to take the lead in this international tango - which might culminate in something far different than the Bush team's initial concept (in many ways, it already has). And at the end of the day, other than a little noxious hypocrisy and political grandstanding by the GOP, the point is really that Iraq has a chance to make a historic change, and one that could improve the lot of its long suffering population. Even if this has meant seizing the ball and running with it on their own. Of course, it would be nice if the Right were a bit more circumspect in their triumphalism, and cognizant of the recent history as it actually has unfolded. In closing, I refer to Hertzberg again (for the record, his and Smyth's articles, despite my cherry picking, are actually quite balanced and include plenty of astute criticism of the excesses of the Left):

But, for the moment at least, one can marvel at the power of the democratic idea. It survived American slavery; it survived Stalinist cooptation (the "German Democratic Republic," and so on); it survived Cold War horrors like America's support of Spanish Falangism and Central American death squads. Perhaps it can even survive the fervent embrace of George W. Bush.

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