Cinderella liberty

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Americans have always believed that democracy would be that one great gift they would give the world, a treasure that we would nurture and then (hands a-trembling), pass on to others. That it was purchased, Golgotha-like, by rag-clad and starving citizen soldiers fighting a foreign king made it all the more precious–and Christ-like. In the hands of Thomas Jefferson, Paul’s imprecation ("there is no remission of sin without the shedding of blood") became a secular litany: "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time," he said, "with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

Don’t laugh: many Americans once believed that Abraham Lincoln’s Good Friday assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth ("that devil") was ordained by a greater power, who lay "a fit sacrifice upon the altar of freedom" that "redeemed" the nation. A maudlin American soldier later reflected that "His death" (Lincoln’s presumably) was "akin to that earlier sacrifice" and even appropriately accompanied by "a darkness that swept athwart the sky". Lincoln died, this soldier wrote, though "his heart was full of Conciliation & Charity & Forgiveness." And darkness descended, and the earth shook. But wait! All was not lost. American democracy, tried by "the crucible" (Lincoln’s phrase) of civil war rose again from the dead as a nation reunited–and so takes its place once again at the head of nations.

Waving flags. Organ tones. Fade.

I wonder what Tom and Abe would think about democracy in Iraq? Six major slates of candidates are contending for seats in the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections–a hodgepodge of warring strains and currents that have resulted in the establishment of nearly as many political parties as there are seats in the Council of Representatives. Worse yet, no striding lion of Babylon (as it were) has emerged as the favorite, a puzzle to Americans who believe that a nation’s first leaders must be like Washington: soft-spoken, modest and thoroughly boring. A painting on a wall. Then too, America’s vision of democracy in Iraq did not imagine the flood of money from neighbor-patrons: Saudis and Iranians and Islamists–who all, not so shockingly, seem to think they have a stake in the election’s outcome.

Finally, and most embarrassingly, none of Iraq’s major political figures are premising their campaigns on their ties to their "liberators"–a lesson learned, at least in some small part, from America’s fatal embrace of Fateh in 2006, when US support for the mainstream Palestinian party ensured its defeat. That is to say: the United States is not standing on the sidelines in Iraq; it has been pushed there. Think of it: with more than 4,300 Americans dead and tens of billions of dollars expended (not to mention the loss of national prestige, confidence, and self-congratulation–oh, and the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis) the least influential voice in Iraq is that of the United States of America.

Naively, Americans believed they could create a democracy in their own image: a "Cinderella Democracy". After sweeping the streets of the flowers that greeted our arrival, we would (prince-like) proffer a beautiful glass slipper to just the right candidate–albeit one of our choosing. This leader, this faux Washington, would then dutifully wing his way to Jerusalem to kiss the ass of the Israelis. The resulting shift would work miracles: Damascus and Tehran would be intimidated, the region’s Salafists would be defeated, the Palestinians would be humbled, Israel would be safe and the creation of a secular, pluralist, multiparty, market-oriented democracy at the heart of the Middle East would transform the region. America would triumph.

What is so disturbing about this vision (and most especially for its neo-conservative creators) is that, in large part, it is actually starting to come true. For amid Iraq’s continuing bloody tide and the near-anarchy of contending voices and armed militias, Iraqi democracy is slowly and inexorably taking shape. What is being created from the wreckage of the American occupation is both akin to what we intended and different from what we envisioned: what is emerging is a secular, pluralist, multiparty, market-oriented democracy. But, alas, this is not the age of miracles: Damascus and Tehran are not intimidated, the region’s Salafists are not defeated, the Palestinians are not humbled–and there isn’t an Iraqi leader in sight who would be caught dead in Jerusalem. Or have anything to do with the Americans.

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