This Reuters reporter went into an Iraqi barber shop to ask Iraqis if America gave them democracy. Here is a compilation of their responses:
“OK, we have democracy. We can talk freely with no fear. We can demonstrate and vote freely. All these are available, and all were not before 2003,” said student Hussain Ali, 20, as he waited for his haircut.
“But why don’t you ask us about the other side of the story of the U.S. presence in Iraq? Why don’t you ask about their crimes, atrocities, the pain and anguish that we suffered because of their military presence here?” Ali said, his face turning red with anger.
“Americans brought democracy to Iraq. But our leaders undermine it. They exploit it for their own personal benefit,” said Khalid al-Taei.
“Do you see this soldier in this checkpoint” asked shop owner Wael al-Khafaji, 48. “He can do whatever he wants to me right now and I can’t say a word. Is this democracy?”
“What democracy are you asking me about, when my basic rights as a human being are stolen? If this is what Americans mean by democracy, let it be damned.”
“Can you tell me who won the vote and who formed the government? Answer my question before you ask me to answer yours. Is this democracy?
In my estimation, which is less valuable than theirs, these responses are far too generous. Yes, the improvements of today’s Iraq compared to under Saddam came at unimaginable costs of death and anguish. And even now, it isn’t great. But I don’t think that quite gets the point across.
The Iraqi government is one of the most corrupt on the planet. In 2010, Transparency International indexed corruption around the world and out of a 178 countries Iraq came in 175 (with 1 being the least corrupt). Last month, Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi said Iraq was “rife with corruption,” which has spread through the Iraqi government “like an octopus” and that corrupt “mafias” are an impediment to political reform and progress in the country.
Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has in numerous instances circumvented Parliament, consolidated illegitimate power in a long trend of quasi-dictatorial behavior, harshly cracked down on peaceful protests which occurred at the outset of the Arab Spring, harassed and even attacked journalists that were critical of his regime, and has been accused of torturing prisoners in secret Iraqi jails. In a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, US envoy Ryan Crocker noted in 2009 that Maliki’s turn towards more centralized rule is “in US interest.”
And now, as United States military forces leave Iraq, the leadership in America continuously refer to the “new relationship” with Iraq. It will become “a normal relationship,” they say. This new normal they refer to is of the kind that generalizes throughout the Middle East region, namely one characterized by large packages of economic and military aid to abusive governments and armies in exchange for conformity to US interests. Typically, this goes directly contrary to the interests and rights of the people.
The Iraqis in the barber shop use the fact that they can talk about politics in public without fear of being tortured and that they vote in elections to reluctantly declare that, yes, they have democracy. But that word is too loaded in the U.S. (synonyms include “flawless paradise,” for example) to be fairly inserted into the conversation here. Describing the status quo as one that “steals” Iraqis “basic rights as human beings” indicates something much different. Despite everything, the U.S. government and media relentlessly pat themselves on the back for bringing democracy to Iraq. It’s a sad legacy for the greatest crime of the era to have snagged.