Tuesday, February 01, 2005


I've been amazed over the years at the prodigious output of John Nichols, the Madison-based "Washington correspondent" for The Nation, who writes the magazine's "On-line Beat" column. Nichols usually writes about domestic policy and Democrats in Congress, and does a pretty good job of it. But his columns about last weekend's elections in Iraq are puzzling, to say the least.

On Sunday, Nichols posted a column, "Occupation Thwarts Democracy," that jumped the gun on the events that were about to transpire in Iraq. First, he used quotation marks around the word "election," implying they were fixed, and made the false claim that "political parties campaigning in this weekend's so-called 'election' in Iraq did not propose timetables for the withdrawal of US troops from their homeland." Not true; some of the Shiite parties did just that. Later on, he referred again to "this farce of an 'election'."

By yesterday, Nichols had changed his tune. Gone were the quotation marks. "The images of Iraqis crowding polling places for that country's first free election in a half century were both moving and hopeful," he wrote, 24 hours after he had called the election a farce. "The voting, while marred by violence, irregularities and boycotts, went off more smoothly than even the most optimistic members of the Bush administration had dared predict."

Now he was sounding like a commentator on CBS or CNN - in safe territory, back with the mainstream. But why the radical shift in tone and wording between columns? Nichols should really stick to domestic affairs; foreign policy is definitely not his forte.

My initial impression of the election was positive. I started watching CNN around midnight on Sunday night, and was surprised to see so many people turning out. I, too, was moved by the sight of thousands of Iraqis lining up to vote. I remembered the first time I ever voted, back in California in the 1970s, and empathized with the solemnity and joy that many Iraqis expressed in their interviews. This event seemed to say: we Iraqis, despite Bush's occupation and his initial opposition to open elections like this, want our country back.

The best commentary I read was from Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, as reported by a columnist with a newspaper in Washington State:
"I am just appalled by the cheerleading tone of U.S. news coverage of the so-called elections in Iraq on Sunday," wrote Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan.

Although he called the elections "a political earthquake" and "a historical first step," Cole said the popular election was forced on a president who "opposed one-person, one-vote elections of this sort. First they were going to turn Iraq over to (Ahmad) Chalabi within six months. Then (American administrator Paul) Bremer was going to be MacArthur in Baghdad for years. Then on Nov. 15, 2003, Bremer announced a plan to have council-based elections in May of 2004. The United States and United Kingdom had somehow massaged into being provincial and municipal governing councils, the members of which were pro-American. Bremer was going to restrict the electorate to this small, elite group."

Religious leaders and the United Nations demanded free elections. Their protests were followed by street demonstrations.

Then, according to Cole, "Bush caved" -- but postponed the Iraqi elections until after the U.S. election was decided.

(One of the best places to keep track of events in Iraq and what they mean is Cole's daily blog, "Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History, and Religion.")

Elsewhere in the media, I was sickened to see Geraldo Rivera on Fox suck up to the US military and Ahmed Chalabi ("And how are you, my good friend?") and portray the election as a triumph for George Bush. It was equally appalling this morning when right-wing talk show host Laura Ingraham greeted Christopher Hitchins as a long-lost friend and gave Hitchins lots of air time to bash the left and praise Bush as a great liberator. Get a grip, Hitchins.

But overall, I think the elections are a hopeful sign and something that we in the left and antiwar movement should embrace - while keeping our eyes wide open about the problems that were so evident. Another Nation writer, Marc Cooper, posted an excellent column on his blog that sums out how I feel:

Those of who opposed this war and who want to see the U.S. troops withdrawn as soon as possible 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 in order to reduce the violence, and a bolstering of civil society (as a safeguard against fundamentalism). If we merely write off yesterday's vote as only potemkin 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 we should support the stabilization of a successful, pluralistic Iraqi state.

Well said, Marc. We need more sensible thinking like that, and less of the knee-jerk reactions that appear all too often in the left press.