Monday, December 01, 2008

"Why am I for Obama?" published in Iraqi news weekly

Happy belated Thanksgiving to all! I just had an article published in Arabic in a leading Iraqi news weekly, called Al Esbuyia, or Iraq Weekly, entitled "Why am I for Obama". Al Esbuyia recently made other news by publishing a political cartoon depicting female suicide bombers that provoked the ire of Iraqi parliamentarians.

Here's the link to the article in Arabic, Why am I for Obama?, and the original pasted below in English. Unfortunately, I don't think the poem made it through the final edit, but I thought I'd leave it here for you to read.

As the article points out, most Iraqis I knew supported McCain, and it was helpful to get this note back from an Iraqi friend after he read the article. "Your perspective gives me hope because I hoped McCain would win, but your article shows that Obama will understand Iraq better and hopefully help it while serving the American people. By the way, congratulations on such amazing elections and groundbreaking outcome."

Why am I for Obama?

Unlike for Republican candidate John McCain, Iraq was never President-elect Barack Obama’s lodestar. Obama opposed the US invasion into Iraq in 2003 as well as the troop “surge” in 2007. Even during his campaign, Obama preferred to focus attention on what he considered the real fight in Afghanistan, from which Iraq was just a distraction, and a costly one at that. We “took our eye off the ball” with our myopic obsession of winning the war in Iraq at the expense of catching Osama Bin Ladin, Obama proclaimed in the first presidential debate with McCain.

Does Obama’s lackluster consideration of Iraq make Iraqis nervous? From my informal canvassing of my Iraqi acquaintances, it seemed to. Many preferred McCain because of what they perceived to be his iron-clad determination to stay put until democracy is shored and security restored.

But recent events seem to poke holes in my theory that Iraqis are wary of Obama. The Iraqi cabinet just signed the elusive security pact with the United States, in part because members believed that an Obama administration would actually respect the timetable because it more closely coincided with, and even elongated, his own stated plan of 16-months. There was some distrust as to whether a Republican administration would stick with the notion of pulling out of a country on which it had staked its entire foreign policy (not to mention its grand plans to remake the Middle East)—especially if that country were descending into chaos, disorder, and left an image of leaving with our tail between our legs. An opposition administration would have no problem deeming the whole operation a failure, proclaiming how badly the previous government screwed it up, and making a public vow that they never would have or never would in the future make such poor decisions.

It is true, however, that McCain had visited Iraq many times and took on the issue with much passion and fervor. One could say that he cared much more deeply about the situation in Iraq; he saw Iraqi success and security as inseparable from American success and security, versus Obama’s more flippant attitude. However, prioritization does not ensure right decision-making, or even intelligent policy. Obama, though less knowledgeable and experienced on Iraqi issues, is, as many pundits have pointed out, a very “quick study”, and very comfortable with nuance and complexity, without which one could not even hope to grasp the labyrinth of Iraqi politics and history. McCain, on the other hand, despite his experience, has often confused “Sunnis” and “Shias” and has been criticized as similar to President Bush in his tendency to avoid fine distinctions.

Another reason why Obama might be good for Iraq is his stated penchant for “talking” before fighting. This helps especially with Iran, whose Ahmedinejad already sent Obama a conciliatory overture in a letter of congratulations after his election. Obama’s election—and the prospect of a less hostile administration occupying its neighbor— also might have softened Iran’s opposition to Iraq’s security pact with the United States, according to political analysts. The notion a rising regional power and the world’s superpower engaging in more diplomatic exchanges rather than proxy wars inside Iraq is a heart-warming outlook for Iraqi security indeed.

It’s probably becoming clear where my biases lie, with my intent extolling of Obama’s virtues. But, in truth, I have two biases—I am staunchly pro-Iraq and pro-Obama, (and I’ve been pro-Iraq for longer). After witnessing (and sometimes participating) in the incredible mistakes committed during the first two years of the American program in Iraq, I believe the best thing for Iraq is to have an America in its midst that understands that it has taken a wrong turn somewhere in the past years and that change must happen. This view has been the mantra of Obama’s campaign. He has also stressed that we must not only talk about, but live up to, and act on our ideals, whether that involves repairing frayed friendships, talking to our enemies, closing an ignominy like Guantanamo prison, or leaving a country that asked us to.

Along with the prospect of a changed America that Obama brings with him, the election itself also brought home the example of something so wonderful about America that doesn’t change—the power of democracy. This month’s election showcased the peaceful transition of power and a transparent process that involved real choice, real accountability, and fairness. And the election of the first African-American candidate showed that anything is possible.

This thrilling election reminded me of another election just as powerful—in Iraq on January 30, 2005. At the polling center I visited that day and the Iraqis with whom I spoke, I saw the faces lit up with glee at the “feeling of freedom” and of the opportunity to have a personal say and stake in the future of their country. It was an incredibly moving sight to witness voters who were braving dire and grave terrorist threats to cast their ballots and demonstrate their freedom. As Iraq heads into this tense period before its upcoming provincial elections, I hope the recent American elections remind the Iraqi people of their own in 2005, during which Iraqis banded together to defeat fear, intimidation, and violence. You truly showed the world that anything was possible, and reminded us of that most powerful force—freedom. Allow me to share the poem I wrote on that day.

Badge of Honor

My finger is still purple,
My tears are still wet,
With the feeling of freedom.
My heart is overwhelmed by their joy,
Their hope, their courage.
I am humbled, bowed before them.
They are the lights shining in darkness.
They are the river, the lifeblood of the world!
This is their gift to us, their purpose.
They have not only changed themselves and their country.
Their fight is for the world,
Tipping the balance on the side of freedom.
What could express the depth of our gratitude?
They say we saved them from the maniacal regime;
We gave them democracy.
Little do they know they are giving it back to us,
Giving us their example of freedom from fear,
Of the rewards of courage.
True warriors,
Each ballot a sword brandished against evil,
Each purple finger a
Badge of honor.

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