Iraq's $200 Billion Election

The United States has spent nearly $200 billion dollars and lost more than 1,400 American lives so that Iraqis could attempt representative government. If, by some miracle, the result is a democratic and pro-western Iraq, President Bush can claim Mission Accomplished, for real.

But a great deal must still break right before that banner can be unfolded. One risk is endless insurgency and prolonged occupation. Another is that Iraqis will indeed elect a popular government, but not one that we like, or that likes us.

A recent New Yorker magazine profile of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi referred to him as Saddam Lite. This would not be the first time that the United States installed a friendly strongman with democratic trappings, only to have the enterprise backfire utterly.

Compare the effort spent to bring the rudiments of democratic process to Iraq with the feeble state of American democracy at home.

Last November, election lists were a mess in countless precincts, lines were intolerably long, and many African-American voters were targeted for ballot suppression. The chief election officials in Ohio and Florida were shamelessly partisan.

The Bush administration made sure Iraq got an Independent Electoral Commission to keep the process honest. No such luck in the United States.

Bush found billions for Iraq's election, but has underfunded the 2002 Help America Vote Act, a law intended to give states and localities financial help to develop more reliable balloting systems.

Flagrant gerrymandering of congressional districts has created mostly safe seats, placing more than 90 percent of House seats beyond the effective control of the voters. Despite a reform effort, big money is more influential in politics than ever. In the end, Iraqi voters who braved bombs and bullets may actually have turned out at a higher rate than Americans.

It is ironic that one of America's biggest worries is that the elected rulers of Iraq will want to turn it into an Islamist Shi'ite theocracy. Press reports refer hopefully to Allawi as a ''secular Shi'ite."

By that criterion, how should we describe George W. Bush? A secular Christian? I don't think so. He is more determined to remove the separation of church and state and turn America into a theocracy than any chief executive in our history.

Democracy is not just about honest elections and competitive candidacies. It is also about open debate, a fair legislative process, a broadly diverse press, wide tolerance, and personal liberties. On each of these fronts, democracy in our own land is frayed, and Bush is the prime offender.

Bush's second inaugural address barely mentioned democracy at home. His speech portends an age in which the forms of democracy are loudly celebrated and nominally extended, while its vital heart is weakened.

My generation grew up thinking of the world neatly divided into democracies and dictatorships. In World War II, this was literally true (though our wartime ally, Joseph Stalin, was an awkward discordant note).

Likewise in the Cold War, the core story rang true -- a democracy against an evil empire, though again America had some dubious dictatorial allies, and some dirty domestic secrets like the exclusion of blacks from voting.

But today, the world is a sea of gray: Our Russian ally, Vladimir Putin, his tame media and his kleptocrats; our Saudi ally, with its despotic monarchy and medieval view of women; our Pakistani ally, a military dictatorship with some parliamentary trappings; our Chinese trading partner, a combination of emergent capitalism, daubs of personal liberty, with tight one-party control.

Does George W. Bush plan on dislodging any of these in the name of his crusade to expand freedom? Not hardly.

The biggest risk of all is the continued, willful, ineluctable erosion of our own democracy. Imagine an inaugural address devoted to expanding the reach of democratic freedom at home. I hope we live to see one.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. This column originally appeared in The Boston Globe.

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