Early last week, members of the Yale College Students for Democracy asked students walking through Cross Campus to dip their fingers in indelible blue ink. A sign of solidarity with the elections in Iraq, the gesture supposedly embodied a pure and positive celebration of the glory of democracy, free from political overtones and the grinding of any ideological axe. One cannot reproach the passers-by who participated in the event simply out of support for the millions of Iraqis striving for a better future. Yet it is hard to watch YCSD — whose members beat the drums of a war that sent thousands to their deaths — parrot the flighty rhetoric of President Bush’s recent State of the Union address and pin their colors on a disingenuous message of peace and hope.
Of course, any instance where oppressed peoples exercise their democratic agency must be applauded. Having endured decades of Saddam Hussein’s brutal, dictatorial rule — sustained for years by cynical American Cold War geo-politicking — and now months of hardship and chaos under foreign occupation, Iraqis deserved nothing less than free and legitimate elections. But they couldn’t win them without a struggle. Ever since images of Saddam’s toppled statue were beamed to all corners of the globe and the hawks at home prematurely patted themselves on the back for a mission accomplished, countless Iraqis massed in demonstrations and confronted coalition authorities over the right to choose their own government and live in a nation with its sovereignty restored.
But in the Bush administration’s happy photo album of the war on terror, these elections only exist in a snapshot of smiling faces and ink-flecked fingers, tucked next to pictures of the president cockily strutting around an aircraft carrier and Paul Bremer vigorously shaking hands in a “transfer of sovereignty.” This is a very deliberate tactic. So much of how the administration has sold its agenda — and, in particular, the invasion and occupation of Iraq — has required the celebration of such isolated “epochal” moments and an annihilation of the deeper realities which underlie them. Freedom is on the march, heedless of what it tramples underneath.
While 57 percent of the eligible Iraqi electorate reportedly voted two Sundays ago, a deeper analysis of what took place would make uncomfortable reading for those who see these elections as legitimizing the goals of the neo-conservative project. Iraqis braved not just the threat of insurgent violence, but a full coalition lockdown, the closure of all roads and shoot-to-kill curfew orders. So volatile were the conditions that voters did not even know in advance the names of the majority of the candidates they would elect. Declared unsafe for any international monitors (while 800 managed to staff the polls in the recent Palestinian elections), the Iraqi elections only met global standards according to a team of assessors secluded in neighboring Jordan. The Sunnis, as has been well-documented, remained marginalized and boycotted the vote in droves. The Shias, who throughout the occupation have bitterly agitated for these elections — no doubt sensing an opportunity to seize political control over Iraq — voted not just with the knowledge of their numerical supremacy, but with the conviction that the ballot box would be the first step toward supplanting foreign dominion over their nation.
Yet Jamie Kirchick ’06, YCSD president interviewed on Cross Campus, thinks the elections principally sent a strong “psychological message to the terrorists” (“Yalies celebrate Iraqi democracy,” 2/2). On a day when more than 50 Iraqis lost their lives and during one of the costliest weeks for coalition troops, such triumphalist logic is wishful and naive, if not irresponsible. The insurgency, in all its ugly extremism and violence, is inextricably linked to the presence of a foreign military authority. And — despite President Bush’s remark that “the United States has no right, no desire and no intention to impose our form of government on anyone else” — much of the political landscape post-elections will remain firmly controlled by agents of occupation.
Permanent bases for coalition forces are being erected nearby major city centers. Paul Bremer, before leaving Iraq, appointed American-backed Iraqi exiles to key positions of influence and power — the Inspector General, the Media Commission, the Council of Judges — on five-year terms. The CPA has already outlined massive schemes of privatization and structural adjustment that will leave Iraq subject to foreign capital for years to come. However representative and democratic the constitutional assembly and transitional government that emerge from these elections may be, they will have their hands completely tied by CPA-mandated legislation.
All the while, Iraqis still struggle with soaring unemployment, rampant power cuts and a lack of clean water. As the insurgency goes unabated and dozens perish each week, the joy of participating in the democratic process, the ecstatic voters displaying their dabbed fingers, may become a faded memory within the constant nightmare of a suffering, war-ravaged nation.
Even the YCSD, whose members (in the pages of this publication) bayed for a regime change that could only arrive through blood and war, wishes to extract itself from the horror of their own fantasies. Keith Urbahn ’06, YCSD vice president, explains that “the war was not really the issue why we supported Iraq. Ultimately it’s about democracy over tyranny.” And, in a sense, he’s right. Ultimately, the democratic will of the Iraqi people must map the nation’s future — but it should be a future free from the tyranny of Urbahn and the ideology of the YCSD.
Ishaan Tharoor is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.