What We Really Owe Iraq Now

Published on Friday, February 4, 2005 by the Harvard Crimson

Look, we let those Iraqis have an election! Surely we're bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East. So intones the neoconservative. Well, we owe it to the Iraqi people to stay there "until the job is done." Such is the liberal line. Yet beyond the pundits, the politicians, and certain Ivy League circles, a majority of both Americans and Iraqis now share a more sensible opinion: The time has come to end the occupation.

What we really owe the Iraqi people is their country back. What we really owe our troops is their lives back home. And what we owe ourselves is a reality check.

Of course we should cheer the millions of Iraqis who braved the bombs and bullets to cast their ballots on January 30. The elections were a testament to human resilience. They were also proof of Iraq's capacity for self-determination, as Iraqis showed the world they are able to make their own decisions about their affairs.

But the U.S. occupation tragically muted the democratic voice of the people. It undermined the elections' legitimacy for the Sunnis and other key sectors of the population opposed to American influence in their country. It produced conditions that kept many voters away from the polls, limited others' knowledge of who and what they were voting for, and caused voting irregularities across wide areas of the country.

And in crucial respects, the occupation took the outcome out of the hands of ordinary Iraqis from the get-go: the lack of civilian control of the military, the Americans' appointment of key officials in government ministries, the preemptive decrees made by Paul Bremer last year mandating the privatization of Iraqi industries.

An occupied country is not a sovereign country, and it is not one in which people can ever fully realize their democratic rights. If the French Army (with help from Poland) were to invade the United States, set up an occupational authority, deploy wherever it pleased, and take out large cities where it faced resistance, would anyone claim that we were a sovereign, democratic republic? Not until the last gendarme left our shores.

Iraqis know this better than we do. Many who were interviewed at the polls said they were hoping their vote would help end the occupation. A Zogby poll taken a week ago shows that clear majorities of both Shia (69%) and Sunnis (82%) want us to withdraw from Iraq now. So why are some so out of touch?

First, there is the illusion that the U.S. presence is intended to make Iraq free. Let us be clear: Of course it's a good thing that a homicidal dictator now sits in a prison cell and not in a presidential palace. But this was not what the U.S. ostensibly went to war for. The U.S. went to war to remove a purported "imminent threat" to our security.

When the threat was proven to be a figment of the Bush administration's imagination, the purpose of the enterprise was switched to the pursuit of "freedom." While normally among the noblest of aims, that glorious ideal was here turned into little more than a fallback plan for the occupation's public relations division. This gives us good reason to doubt the sincerity of our government's commitment to Iraqi freedom.

Its commitment is also belied by the steps it's taken over the past two years to repress Iraqi dissent, from ordering troops to open fire on peaceful demonstrators to blocking the publication of certain newspapers to shutting down the offices of Iraq's trade unions and other civic groups. We have simply failed to pave the path towards a free society. Instead, we have followed the road to Abu Ghraib.

Then there is the illusion that the occupation is making Iraqis safer. Or that "we broke it, so we own it." Yes, we broke it. But the fact that we were the ones who broke it does not inspire much confidence in our ability to fix it.

The presence of 150,000 foreign troops - and their efforts to "pacify" Sunni regions - has only nurtured and emboldened the most violent elements of the resistance, helping them recruit everyone from Iraqi nationalists to Islamist militants in their horrific campaign. If they saw the Americans leave, the first group would likely lay down their arms immediately, while the rest would instantly lose the support they rely on.

In the meantime, with every day we continue the occupation, the carnage continues to escalate. January 30, for all its triumphs, brought the largest number of suicide bombings ever seen in a single day. We will be no better qualified to guarantee Iraq's security tomorrow than we have been for the last two years.

And let us not forget the 1,438 of America's most promising young men and women whose lives have been cut senselessly short by this war. Let us not allow thousands more to come home in flag-draped coffins because we chose not to bring them home in time. The call to end the occupation is a call to support the troops.

This is a war that cannot be won. The greatest victory we can seek is a genuinely free Iraq - free not only from the tyranny of Saddam, but free also from the tyranny of military occupation, and free from the tyranny of terror that has come with it.

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