Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Pursuit of Happiness

This year on June 28, about a week before we all took a Monday off, set off some fireworks and ate BBQ to celebrate 229 years of independence and freedom, Iraqis celebrated their first year of sovereignty. One year ago, on that day in 2004, Paul Bremer of the CPA turned over sovereignty of Iraq to an interim government, two days ahead of the published schedule. I remember sitting in a bunker on FOB O’Ryan, in the middle of the Sunni triangle, when that news came over the radio. We had been planning for a transfer on June 30th, and like the insurgents we were caught a little off guard. In Response we moved up our planned schedule of heightened security patrols by about ten hours. We celebrated brand new Iraqi sovereignty and America’s 228th birthday with an intensified operational tempo that lasted almost two weeks. With the direct assistance of Iraqi security forces, we raided a local Al-quaeda mosque, and multiple insurgent/Baathist cells, in between we secured city council meetings and a special sovereignty celebration.
The sovereignty celebration was a pretty big deal for the local populace. They held it in the city youth center, the largest public assembly building in Ad-Dujail, once a Baath party facility. Local leaders, sheiks, Imams and politicians all came to speak. Haji Ali a former police chief in town and retired head of the national police academy spoke eloquently on the subject of freedom. Hundreds of kids turned out dressed in everything from traditional Bedouin garb to soccer uniforms. I remember my young friend Hassem, perhaps the most promising and squared kid in town; he gave me a miniature Iraqi flag. The flag was of a typical modern textile, mass produced like the hundreds of American flags we’ll see waved in hands at ball games and parades this week, but it was stapled to a raw twig off of a tree. The past met the present in Iraq that day, and Iraqis began to look to their future.
In their first year of renewed sovereignty Iraqis have continued to struggle for a future that includes freedom. Militarily they continue to fight a war against insurgents. Politically they continue to try to build a stable and lasting democracy. But Iraqis Are taking their new freedoms seriously; on January 31, 2005 eight and a half million Iraqis turned out to vote in their first multi party elections in decades. This number, 8.5 million represents 58% of eligible Iraqi voters and nearly one third of the entire population. Even if one accepts the most alarmist statistics about the insurgency, that there are 40,000 active insurgents, supported by another 160,000 strong sympathizers, the insurgents are clearly a small minority. Even assuming this worst case scenario, the insurgents number under one percent of the population, and are overwhelmingly outnumbered by a populace that wants a real democratic future.
Democracy isn’t the only thing that the people of Iraq want. They want a future for themselves and their children. A “future” in Iraq means just what it means in America, economic prosperity and opportunity for one’s self and children. Two hundred and twenty years ago, in declaring the American colonies sovereign, our founding fathers asserted the rights to life, liberty, AND the pursuit of happiness. While the last phrase has been occasionally re-interpreted, the founding fathers were asserting an economic right; the right to develop wealth, freely without restriction.
As much as democracy, liberal market economics has fueled peace and prosperity in the globalized world. Globalization at its best has meant free trade and rule of law. This has lead to opportunity, prosperity and the growth of a transnational middle class. Access to satellite television and even the internet have penetrated Iraqi society to show them what they’ve been missing. Iraqis have just enough connectivity to want in on this phenomenon. Unfortunately Iraq today despite the presence of some 130,000 US soldiers, and a growing Iraqi security force, remains in too many ways a wild and lawless society. The insurgency and criminal gangs continue to plague the country.
But Iraq, if tamed and re-connected with the global economy, has the power to change the world. The transformation of Iraq into a nation of democratic laws with a market economy has the potential to serve as a beacon not only of liberty, but of possibility. While the Arab world and the Islamic world are not identical, but overlapping zones, they represent a vast portion of the undeveloped world. Iraq sits near the center of this intersection. If we,, as a nation can muster the gumption to stay the course, and continue to support Iraqis who are struggling against an illegitimate insurgency, we will create an example, not just of liberty, but of opportunity, for peoples whose lack of hope is at the root of the frustration that feeds terrorism.
Our nation was born through a violent struggle. These days we remember this struggle only dimly. We celebrate the day we declared our independence, but we rarely give deeper consideration to what that declaration and the struggle to enforce it meant. In Iraq they are still struggling, and the explosions are all too real, not celebratory imitations. Six months have passed since I’ve returned from Iraq. I have no way of knowing whether or not anyone in Iraq was celebrating this anniversary. But as our celebration of nationhood approaches I wonder about it. I remember the sense of pride and hope that I saw a year ago, on Iraqi faces. Do they still have that sense?
The new Iraqi government seems determined. Having survived the elections and the insurgent violence against them. Having worked heir way through the post-electoral compromises necessary to form a government. With a new court set to administer justice and fledgling security forces fighting hard. They have called on the US to continue to assist in the struggle. As we here at home celebrate the enormous privilege of having been born in a free, open and prosperous society, let us remember that not everyone shares this privilege. We committed ourselves, as a nation, to destroying the regime of Saddam Hussein. Not just ousting him, but destroying his regime. This means defeating the insurgency, where the dreams of his regime still dwell. The Iraqi people overwhelmingly want a future. I hope that as they struggle, they were able take a moment to acknowledge the enormous accomplishments of their first year as a renewed nation. And I hope that we in America, as we celebrate yet another year of freedom, we remember the commitment to we made spread that freedom, and I hope that we remember the stakes that we are fighting for in that commitment.



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