Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Lottery of Babylon

Elections are being held today in Iraq, the first in what is supposed to be a series of national plebiscites. This one selects a national assembly that is going to draft a permanent constitution, upon which a popular referendum will be held for ratification. There are high hopes for the election, but fears too, given what the situation is like over there.

Everyone knows how high the stakes are, and to make matters worse, they are decidedly stacked against us. Very little can happen at the elections themselves to improve the situation, but a lot can go wrong. This is the worst of situations, because if we win it isn't clear that it will matter. On the other hand, there are a multitude of results that would hurt our cause, and Iraq's as well, at least insofar as the two are the same. Fear and intimidation could ruin turnout. Religious or ethnic minorities could boycott the election. And, in the worst case scenario, the people could legitimately install a backward, insular, fundamentalist regime in the Iranian style. Anything could happen, and while that makes for great TV, it is a curious way to run a country.

Even so, this is something that must take place. We gave our word, as a people, that we would rebuild their country and usher it back into the family of nations. My views on the war are complicated, and I will explain them at some future point, but take it on faith that I am no hawk. Nevertheless, having gone there, we are left with only one choice and that's to see the thing through. Sixty years ago we rebuilt a broken Europe, a continent torn apart by war and inhuman cruelty. We did it for a lot of reasons, some quite selfless, and so not so selfless. But we did it, and we left (kinda). Now we have given Iraq the same promise, and there is nothing to do but live up to it.

Important as the election is to us, it means far more for Iraq. This election is the Iraqi people's first opportunity to pass judgment on our own conduct, and even if the result is not pretty, it is something that must be done. More too, this may prove to be, if it manages to spread the seeds of democracy. You don't expect voting to matter much. The first time you go you have to stand in line for a while, then you have to find your name on a list (they never seem to have me), and when you finally get a ballot, most of the names and issues are probably completely alien to you.

But after it's all over, you've done something important whether you know it or not. Sure, your one vote will never decide any issue aside, perhaps, from who will be dog catcher of Nowheresville, but that is only in the narrowest sense the purpose of the ritual. Voting is an affirmation of our civil religion, the belief that we wield the power ourselves, our chance to muscle ourselves into the throne, if only for a few minutes.

That is the sentiment we need to create. We have come to a broken and impoverished country. We came with missiles, guns, tanks, and fourteen hundred years of cultural division, and yet we say we have come as friends. Liberating the people from a cruel dictator was the first step. Now we have to make sure nobody worse takes over, or at the least if someone does, that the people wanted it that way.

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