Global Policy Forum

Democracy Won, But Do Americans Care?


By Maggie Mitchell-Salem *

Daily Star
February 1, 2005

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraqis often signed their ballots in blood to affirm their undying loyalty to their leader. On Sunday, they dipped their fingers in ink to affirm their commitment to a democratic Iraq. But blood was spilt elsewhere: tens of thousands of civilian and military casualties made the vote possible. Some voters even dressed in burial shrouds to symbolize their willingness to sacrifice themselves for democracy. The vote was cathartic, a way for them to vent grief while resolving to save the future from the ravages of the past.

President George W. Bush took blood off the ballot, but the process itself was borne of sacrifice, mainly Iraqi but also American. Across the U.S., the burden of over 1,500 dead and 10,000 wounded has taken a toll on individual families, communities and the nation as a whole. The belief that securing democracy in Iraq is worth such a price is rapidly fading. Increasingly, Americans are opposed to continued American involvement in Iraq. That loss of faith could cost Bush his vision of a world free of tyranny.

Bush is counting on Sunday's images from Iraq to turn the tide of public opinion in the U.S. Scenes of men and women lining up to vote, defying the dire predictions of the insurgents, breathe life into Bush's second inaugural speech, particularly his statement that the "survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." He is counting on average Americans to share his belief that "the best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."

However, unless Americans buy into Bush's rhetoric for years to come, his experiment with democracy will fail. Georgetown University professor Michael Hudson calls Iraq "the most expensive political science experiment in the world." 150,000 Americans were serving in Iraq in the run-up to the elections. The U.S. diplomatic presence in Baghdad is the largest since Vietnam. Politicians in Baghdad and Washington wisely avoid discussion of specific losses - no daily tallies, no lingering, mournful looks - and instead focus on the outcome. Freedom was mentioned more than 20 times in Bush's inaugural address; Iraq, not once.

The financial price of war no longer goes unnoticed. For three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the administration managed to play a quiet shell game with the numbers, first in Afghanistan then in Iraq. Congress was effectively bullied to accept budgetary demands as a matter of patriotism and support for the commander-in-chief. Now, these supplemental requests - extra monies that fall outside the general budget - have totalled over $300 billion. Congress is less acquiescent; Americans are finally paying attention, especially as cuts closer to home cause them to reconsider waging war for democracy.

Bush has characterized his election victory last November as proof that Americans support his Iraq policy. That rationale is increasingly problematical. Shortly after the U.S. elections, over 50 percent of those surveyed described the war as a "mistake." A Vietnam-like scenario is haunting many in Washington, even some who supported military action in 2003. Though it's nearly impossible to compare Vietnam over 30 years ago with Iraq today, the one constant is U.S. public opinion: Waning American public support has a corrosive effect on the overall war effort.

Bush is well aware of the risks. In an interview with The New York Times shortly after his inauguration, he said, in reference to the lessons learned in Vietnam: "I think one lesson is that there be a clear objective that everybody understands." A touch of humility is also in evidence. While administration officials may never utter the word "mistake," it is clear from the current strategy that there is at least internal recognition that errors were made. Various assumptions - from Saddam's possessing weapons of mass destruction to the cost of the war to the success of the occupation - have proven faulty.

In order to better cope with a clearly unpredictable future, the White House has started to downplay expectations. As a result, Sunday's voter turnout and relative calm in most polling places, even the 35 Iraqis and 10-15 British troops killed, all seemed to point to a victory of sorts. In the middle of the day Bush declared a "resounding success." However, as Richard Murphy, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, pointed out, the election was just one day. Iraq's real success as a democracy will be tested over time, as will America's staying power. The next six months will require the administration's engaging in diplomatic initiatives with Congress and Europe in order to square Bush's tyranny-busting, democracy-promoting ideals with realpolitik considerations at home and abroad.

The urgency is not exaggerated. Though Bush sounded a rallying cry for international freedom during his inaugural, he has articulated a more specific domestic agenda that will consume much of his famous political capital - and time. When factoring in the need to achieve results before the midterm congressional elections in 2006, and his "lame duck" status shortly thereafter, his readiness to tackle social security and not the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will be far more understandable.

While the reportedly high turnout in Iraq and pictures of grateful votes will likely boost the president's sagging popularity ratings - currently the lowest of any second-term president - the honeymoon will be brief. Later this week, Bush's State of the Union address will highlight the triumph of democracy over tyranny in Iraq, with only vague references to the cost paid in American lives. But successful elections are a double-edged sword: The White House will use them to push for long-term American commitment, and sacrifice; opponents will seize on the president's earlier "mission accomplished" phrase and call for an exit. Already, some members of Congress, such as Senator Ted Kennedy, are agitating for the troops to return home. The insurgents have not conceded defeat and the body bags are likely to continue coming home.

Realistically, American forces will remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Will there be American military bases in Iraq? Absolutely. Bush is not spending $300 billion to ensure that in 10 years' time the largest U.S. presence in Iraq will be that of the Baghdad embassy. Lip service is being paid to the idea of a sovereign Iraqi government dictating if and when the U.S. leaves. But should the Iraqis come to believe that, American officials are likely to yank them back into reality. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointed out during an interview on Sunday: "America responded out of national interest, not just the interest of the region." Bush's democratic vision, more pragmatically defined.

About the Author: Maggie Mitchell Salem was a U.S. Foreign Service officer, and from 1998-2000 served as special assistant to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She is currently a public policy and communications consultant based in Washington.

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