October 22, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Democracy Now!

The United Nations finally gave its Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to the American effort in Iraq (with a 15-0 vote in the Security Council) and now the Bush administration is asking the “donor community” to pitch in with some cash and troops. Yet a series of questions keeps arising. Among them:

Is the U.S. illegally occupying Iraq? Or did the US liberate Iraq and are Americans now expending blood and treasure to give Iraqis a chance to build a decent nation for the first time in generations?

Should the US retain military and political control? Or should President Bush turn the reins over to the UN? Should there be more Arab and Muslim boots on the ground in Iraq? Should the money that foreign governments give be managed by Americans and Brits — or by the World Bank?

Actually, we don't need to argue about such questions.  Instead, we can find answers – by simply asking the Iraqi people to tell us what they think and what they want.

It's too soon for Iraqis to go to the polls and elect a new government. Such free and fair elections, as scholar Bernard Lewis has noted, are the product of a functioning democratic society — not the precursor to it. Before the Iraqis select a president or prime minister, they'll need to have a constitution setting out the powers and limits of the office. Before the Iraqis elect a congress or parliament they'll need to decide what sort of representation that body will provide.

But it's not too early for Iraqis to begin learning the habits of self-government. A free press is already flourishing. Town hall meetings are being encouraged. Sooner, rather than later, Iraqis should start voting for school boards, city councils and mayors.

And there's no reason why Iraqis also can't be invited to go to the polls to answer some questions about how they want to be assisted and by whom. And we – Americans, British, French, Russians, Middle Eastern countries — should all agree to abide by their majority decisions. Why not? Whose country is it, anyway?

In other words, if the Iraqis tell us they want the Yankees to go home and the UN to take over, so be it. But, by the same token, if most Iraqis tell us they want the Coalition Provisional Authority and the US military to remain and help see them through this critical period – then let's have no more carping from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and French President Jacques Chirac about American unilateralism.

I'll give you odds that the vast majority of Iraqis will choose Option B.

The ballot should ask whether Iraqis would like to see more troops from Arab and Muslim countries on their streets. I'll bet you dollars to dinars that that Iraqis are not eager to be ordered about by soldiers from countries that turned a blind eye to Saddam Hussein and his rein of terror. That would exclude both Egypt and Pakistan.

Ask about Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran if you want but, trust me, Iraqis know full well that those regimes are right now working energetically to ensure that Iraq's experiment with freedom suffocates in its crib. I'll also wager that about 99.9% of the Kurds do not want Turkish troops anywhere in the country and quite a few Shia and Sunni Iraqis agree. Turkey, after all, is the former colonial power in Iraq; there's no reason to suppose that nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire is running high.

Iraqis should be asked about the management of the money being solicited for development. Knowing that some international organization is handling the funds may make European and American intellectuals feel all warm and fuzzy. But Iraqis — remembering the corruption and inefficiency of the UN Food for Oil program that was set up under Saddam – may feel more like one does when tapping a coat pocket and discovering one's wallet isn't there.

It would be useful to know, too, what percentage of Iraqis believe that, as a matter of fundamental fairness, the debts Saddam incurred purchasing palaces and weapons from abroad should be forgiven rather than heaped on their bruised shoulders.

As the leading critic of the US effort in Iraq, France should volunteer to pick up the check for this exercise in self-determination. The UN should be given the authority to make sure the voting is free and fair.

I'm willing to put my money where my computer mouse is regarding the outcome. That's because I won't really be gambling. Anyone who has taken a serious look at the polling that has been conducted in Iraq, as well as at the objective reporting, would wager just as I would.

But since so many people claim to disagree, let's put it to the test. Let's print ballots, set up booths and get out the vote. Power to the Iraqi people!

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



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