January saw a major dispute between the Bush administration's Iraq occupation authority and that country's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The administration was promoting a plan to hand over power to an Iraqi government selected through a system of what it called "caucuses." Sistani, a spiritual leader for the country's majority religious group, called for the new government to be chosen through elections instead. As Extra! went to press, a team of U.N. election experts was in the country trying to resolve the dispute.
For the U.S. media, the story presented a host of problems. For one thing, it raised awkward issues about how to cover a process that had been advertised as "Iraq's transition to democracy." That, of course, is how the administration describes its goal in Iraq, and the press has been happy to take it at face value. "Many Obstacles Lie Ahead on Iraqi Road to Democracy," a Los Angeles Times headline reported (11/16/03); the New York Times (12/12/03) noted that Iraq administrator Paul Bremer "Expects Rise in Violence as Iraq Builds Democracy"; the headline over a Kansas City Star (1/31/04) profile of a hometown soldier described him as the "No. 2 Civilian Leading Democracy Efforts in Tikrit," and so on.
But the election dispute poses the first serious test of Washington's "democracy" rhetoric, and the administration has come out squarely on the side opposing a free vote. The rationale offered was that national elections this year would be logistically impossible. A comprehensive voter registry had yet to be compiled, they said, and there was no way to hold a nationwide census in time for a vote. Again, most of the media seemed to buy that. "Such a ballot in the next several months is widely seen as impractical," the New York Times reported (11/27/03). The Washington Post (1/23/04) added that "Iraq had not conducted a census in more than 20 years, lacked constituency boundaries and voter rolls, had no laws covering political parties."
What few news outlets seemed to notice was that even while U.S. occupation officials were pointing to the lack of a census as an obstacle to a vote, they were quietly vetoing a detailed plan to conduct one in time for elections. In December (12/4/03), the New York Times revealed that census experts in the Iraqi Planning Ministry had compiled a comprehensive proposal to hold a national population tally followed by elections within the space of 10 months. The plan was completed in October--a month before the U.S.-backed "caucus" plan was unveiled--but the Americans secretly rejected it and never told the Iraqi Governing Council of its existence. When they found out about it, Governing Council members were furious. "This could have changed things," an aide to a Shiite council member told the Times .
But the Times story, which ran inside the paper, seemed to go unnoticed. News outlets continued to cite the administration's rationale for rejecting elections without noting the evidence that seemed to contradict it. After all, if U.S. officials say elections are unfeasible, and then it turns out they rejected plans to make them feasible, they might have other reasons for rejecting elections. And this would call into question the prevailing storyline about an administration committed to Iraqi democracy.
Power for "not just anyone"
In fact, diplomatic officials have spoken out frankly, if anonymously, about their trepidation regarding a popularly chosen government--and their plans to manipulate the process from behind the scenes. Citing senior officials, the New Republic 's Lawrence Kaplan reported last spring (5/12/03) that "attendees at future political conferences as well as the membership of a soon-to-be-organized Iraqi coordinating council will be vetted by American officials and 'stacked' with friendly voices, particularly those belonging to the INC," that is, Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress.
"The bottom line," a senior State Department official explained, "is we control the purse strings, the appointments, and anything else of political value [in postwar Iraq]. Not just anyone is going to get access to this." Kaplan referred to the plan as "updating the Nixon Doctrine for Iraq," an allusion to Nixon's "Vietnamization" plan, which envisioned Vietnamese doing the fighting while the U.S. maintained control.
Meshing well with this Nixon-Doctrine strategy are plans to create a CIA-directed secret police agency in Iraq to root out opposition to the occupation and to any U.S.-installed government. An article in the conservative London Telegraph (1/4/04) reported that "the Pentagon and CIA have told the White House that the organization will allow America to maintain control over the direction of the country as sovereignty is handed over." As intelligence expert John Pike observed, "if you are in control of the secret police in a country, then you don't really have to worry too much about who the local council appoints to collect the garbage."
The report also quoted former CIA counter-terror chief Vincent Cannis-traro comparing the planned security agency to the Phoenix Program of assassination used by U.S. forces in Southeast Asia. "They're clearly cooking up joint teams to do Phoenix-like things, like they did in Vietnam," he said, referring to the military program that killed tens of thousands of Vietnamese activists, mostly civilians.
Direct, indirect, whatever
Most reporters apparently had little stomach for assembling these facts into a case for skepticism regarding the Bush administration's democratic intentions in Iraq. When the elections dispute with al-Sistani heated up, much of the media resorted to euphemisms to describe the issues at stake. Take, for instance, the word "caucus," which is how the occupation authority characterizes its favored mechanism for selecting a sovereign government. Americans are familiar with the concept, since that's how we choose delegates to party nominating conventions in places like Iowa--where, by coincidence, presidential caucuses were being held in January. (CNN.com , in fact, ran a column that discussed the caucuses in Iowa and Iraq as if they were pretty much the same thing--2/19/04).
But the terminology is misleading. Unlike the system envisioned for Iraq, our caucuses are generally open to the public, or at least to anyone who chooses to register as a party member. In Iraq, however, the "caucuses" envisioned are to be closed to the public, with participants handpicked by "organizing committees" set up in each section of the country. The committees consist of 15 individuals handpicked by the Iraqi Governing Council as well as by provincial and local councils--each of which, in turn, were hand-picked by the U.S. The local "notables" chosen to participate in the caucuses would then agree on members of a Transitional Assembly, which, in turn, would appoint the new government. At no point would the public be involved.
Despite this, the process was routinely referred to as one of "caucus-style elections" (e.g., L.A. Times , 12/4/03; New York Times , 12/1/03). Even more misleading, it was often labeled a plan for "indirect elections," as if elections of some kind would actually be held and then the winners would in turn select the government. Ubiquitously, Sistani's position was described as a call for "direct elections," leading news consumer to make the logical but erroneous conclusion that the alternative was some other kind of election. This had the effect of making the dispute appear rather technical. (See Boston Globe , 1/23/04; Washington Post , 1/20/04; Seattle Times , 1/19/04; L.A. Times , 1/18/04.)
In fact, it would be much more accurate to call the U.S. plan a system of indirect appointments. Stated so bluntly, however, the idea loses much of its democratic appeal. And, in fact, there are signs the Bush administration might consider partially conceding the issue to al-Sistani or the U.N.
Over the next year, as Iraq's political process unfolds, the media will get further opportunities to compare the administration's soaring rhetoric with its often less impressive practice. Hopefully they will convey that information to the public--directly.