The Iraqi elections were surreal: The country was in lockdown, the borders sealed off, the candidates’ names still unknown, the reporters bottled up on hotel patios and on military bases and bedecked in flak jackets. Yet, I found the images of Iraqi men and women venturing out amid the threat of car bombs and mortar fire to dip their fingers in purple ink and cast a ballot to be nothing less than inspiring. Frankly, I cannot imagine many Americans voting under such horrific conditions — especially for the caliber of candidates that dominate our process. There are many reasons why the Bush administration insisted on having this vote take place in the midst of a bloody war — and few of them have anything to do with the advancement of democracy. Remember that the Bush administration originally opposed this type of direct voting, having originally pushed for a cockamamie caucus system. The direct one-man, one-vote polling was hard-won by the Iraqis, specifically by the long-marginalized Shiah majority. I find voting in the midst of war an undue burden on any people. And I don’t confuse one election (or many for that matter) with democracy itself (check no further than our own finely oiled system that returns something like 95 percent of incumbents to their warm seats every cycle). That said, millions of Iraqis decided to take their chances — really to take their lives in their hands and register their desire for some sort of better future — no matter how uncertain and ambiguous. This is an entitlement of any people, and a right they have just earned with payment of blood and sacrifice on a scale unimaginable to most of us. No, I don’t believe that the invasion of Iraq and the ensuing occupation were justified by the arguments presented by the Bush administration. Nor do I believe for a moment that this administration knew or currently knows what it is doing. Lost in its ideological fog, the Bush administration’s definition of freedom rarely overlaps with mine. But the political opening in Iraq, no matter its limited size and its grotesque distortions imposed by an unnecessary war, can only be judged a felicitous byproduct of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. At least grant the Iraqis the right to squeeze something beneficial out of a dangerous and misguided American foreign policy. Those who opposed this war and who want to see the U.S. troops withdrawn — either immediately, soon or eventually — should unequivocally encourage the tenuous political process now underway in Iraq. We should stand for more and better elections, not fewer. We should be encouraging the writing of a fair constitution, an inclusion of the Sunnis into the process to reduce the violence, and a bolstering of civil society (as a safeguard against fundamentalism). If we merely write off the vote as only Potemkin-village-like or charade elections we take ourselves out of any serious debate and we degrade the legitimate aspirations of the Iraqi people. Indeed, the more one opposes the war and its pretexts, the more one should support the stabilization of a successful, pluralistic Iraqi state. Nor do I have any doubt that many of those Iraqis who voted did so as a gesture to reclaim their own national sovereignty and dignity and hasten the departure of foreign occupation troops. The Bush administration’s cartoonish characterization of the armed opposition is just that — cartoonish. Religious fundamentalists, revengeful Baathists and a certain foreign-terrorist element populate the insurgency. We can also be sure that there are other, less politically defined “nationalist” strains among the insurgents who are just plain angry and humiliated by Iraq’s dire economic conditions if not by the very presence of an American occupation force. But taken together, this insurgency offers no evidence of supporting a political process that is somehow more open than the limited process imposed by the U.S. There is no “other side” for anti-war forces to support. Our solidarity must be reserved for those who are willing, among the rubble, to attempt the construction of a functional Iraq. Fundamentalists on both sides of the American political spectrum have already begun exploiting the courageous gesture of so many ordinary Iraqis for their own narrow ends. Predictably enough, the White House is trying to concoct a Mission Accomplished Version 2.0 while blithely ignoring the more complex ramifications of this war — both abroad and domestically. The vote was hardly an endorsement of more bloodshed and even less of a guarantee that the war will now not be expanded and prolonged. Unfortunately some on the anti-war left are making a similar error by discounting the voting as a farce. One widely circulated report denigrates the Iraqis as baying sheep who voted only in exchange for food rations. Other reports sneer that the elections were a joke because the Iraqis had no idea for whom or what they were voting. As if they couldn’t understand that the very act of turning out was in itself a vote for politics over war. I was stunned to hear the post-election guffawing this week on the liberal Air America as hosts Rachel Maddow and Lizz Winstead worried out loud that the Shiah ascendance in Iraq resulting from the election might “destabilize” the other Sunni-dominated Arab regimes in the regions. Oh horrors! Imagine the House of Saud or the Jordanian monarchy or the thinly disguised Egyptian police state starting to totter. Since when is it the job of liberals to favor the stability of autocratic governments? Some of these anti-war folks, writing from their comfy dens and apartments, or broadcasting from within their insulated studios, just can’t understand that when Iraqis get up in the morning and plan their day the first question they don’t ask themselves is how their actions will or will not favor the political fortunes of George W. Bush. American policy has imposed quite a fix on the Iraqis and while we can blame that on the Bushies, we all share the responsibility for fashioning a way out — and not just for our troops. For sure, this week’s vote was mostly symbolic. But what a powerful and inspiring symbol. It would be unseemly to take that away from the Iraqi people.

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