Democracy and freedom for Iraq is being equated in the national dialogue with holding elections, that once a people can freely choose their leaders, then those people are free.
But voting, as Caribbean journalist Ricky Singh, used to say, is often nothing more than five minutes at the ballot box. If it is not buttressed by institutions that affirm the fundamental rights of a people, it becomes meaningless.
The reality is that democracy and freedom, as they relate to smaller nations, have never been more than fig leaves of hegemony for the powerful countries. When it has suited the big powers to frustrate or crush democracy in smaller nations, it was done.
Fomenting internal unrest
Almost from its formation, the ideals of the former Soviet Union were hijacked by political opportunities who seized the state apparatus and entrenched themselves in power. The so-called dictatorship of the proletariat -- communism's answer to democracy -- became a fancy term for despotic, murderous oppression. Super-power rivalry dictated that client states were dependable allies.
Where subservience and de mocracy clashed, democracy lost.
For the West, the goal was the same, though the method different. Democratically elected governments in client nations were overthrown by fomenting internal unrest, using the labor movement or the local army or both. It happened in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Guyana and Chile. In fact, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is often accused of proclaiming that the Chilean people, who elected Marxist Salvador Allende president, must be saved from themselves.
In Iran, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was forced to resign for nationalizing the oil industry, and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, friend of the oil conglomerates and a dependable Western ally, was installed as shah with absolute power.
Sometimes removing a government had unintended consequences, such as the popular uprising that overthrew Pahlavi and replaced him with Ruhollah Khomeini, the Shiite maximum leader who proved much more troublesome than Mossadegh could ever have been. That meant an unholy alliance had to be forged with Iraq under a ruler who was not elected: Saddam Hussein. And, as Billy Joel would say, so it went.
Freedom, or oil?
Talk of democracy for Iraq, therefore, could be seen as merely clouding the reality that the objective is not freedom for Iraqis; their oil is. It is not a new theory, but it bears repeating when measuring the death tolls on both sides against the goal.
The irony is that oil is probably also high on the minds of the extremists who staged 9/11 attacks. They no doubt see oil as the main cause of the problems of the Middle East and, by extension, the Muslim world. Without it, major powers would ignore what otherwise would be largely desert lands inhabited by peoples whose culture appears frozen in time. The West wants the oil; the extremists would rather see it disappear.
There is another irony. Under President Bush, more than a little Christian fundamentalism drives the U.S. Middle East policy. Some fundamentalists insist that the 9/11 attacks marked the start of the apocalyptic battle between Good and Evil. But the Islamic world, too, is essentially fundamentalist, believing in the sacredness of the Koran as much as fundamentalist Christians perceive the Bible as literal truth.
An assault on Islam
The armed clash of these two branches of fundamentalism portends a dire future for the world unless Muslims can be persuaded that what Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair see as a war of liberation is but an assault on Islam, another Crusade.
The United States is a marvelous experiment in democracy and commitment to human rights. Like any experiment, it is being made less imperfect with the years. It is not, as some influential fundamentalists believe, the handiwork of God and, thus, the Chosen Nation.
U.S. policy toward the rest of the world should not be be guided by this religious chauvinism or the military-industrial imperative. We have to be a caring enough people to want other nations to enjoy the democracy and freedom that we have in our country. But we also must be willing to let them develop at their pace and not continue to regard them as nothing more than sources of raw materials for our voracious economy.
Mohamed Hamaludin is editor of The Herald's Neighbors Northwest and Neighbors Northcentral.
© 2004 Miami Herald