TCS Daily

Reflections On An 'Election'

By Dale Franks - October 18, 2002 12:00 AM

With 100% of the precincts reporting, Saddam Hussein has received 100% of the vote in the Iraqi presidential election. We are told that this great flowering of democracy sends a message to the world that the Iraqi people are united as one behind their president.

The first reaction one has to such news is that it is utter hogwash. After all, what result do you expect from an "election" whose central question is, "Will you be voting for the current dictator, or shall we just go ahead an attach the electrodes to your private parts right now?"

Grim humor aside, the fact that a despotic regime consents to hold even a sham election raises some interesting thoughts. The Iraqi "election" provides clear evidence, as if any more were needed, about the power of Western ideas, and how they are expanding throughout the world.

The Western ideal of government is that it derives its powers from the citizenry, as expressed through free elections. As our founding document puts it,

"That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Perhaps we in the United States take the simple power of this idea for granted.

The message of the Iraqi "election," however, is that this idea is so extraordinarily powerful that even unreconstructed tyrants like Saddam Hussein - or Pakistan's dictator, Pervez Musharraf, for that matter - feel the need to pay lip service to it. "See," the Iraqi officials tell us, "The people have chosen to keep Saddam Hussein as President. If the people wish it, then his government must be legitimate."

In an odd way, the Iraqi government is a testament to Western thought. The Iraqis, for example, have a parliament, the idea of which derives from the Roman Senate, itself a successor to the Greek agora, where the free citizens of the polis met to enact laws, elect leaders, and make war and peace. The Iraqi parliament, of course, is not a freely elected one, but it copies the form of Western government. Iraq's army uses Western weapons, tanks, uniforms, and ranks. Even Iraq's inquiry into weapons of mass destruction utilizes, as all science must, the Western tradition of free and skeptical scientific inquiry. No atoms, after all, will be split based solely on decrees from Baghdad.

The very term "Western" is no longer merely a geographical term, but rather a term for a specific world-view that incorporates a specific set of ideas. Hong Kong, for example, is far more Western than Beijing, just as Canada is far more Western than Brazil.

Certainly the Iraqis are only concerned with copying the trappings of Western thought, rather than it's substance. But the very fact that Saddam Hussein sees some practical value in trying to invoke the tenets of Westernism in order to bolster his legitimacy tells us much about the power of its ideas.

One hundred years ago, dictators were largely unconcerned with fussing about the forms of Western democracy. What, after all, was the point, when the dictator was going to ignore the election results anyway? Now, dictators ape the form of Western elections as a matter of course, in order to provide a veneer of legitimacy for their despotism. Why should they do so now? What has changed? Clearly, the answer is that there is a much more widely held belief in the truth of the the Western idea that the consent of the people confers legitimacy on the government. This belief was rarely even mentioned outside the West fifty years ago. Now, it has become so ingrained that even despotic tyrants feel they must at least pay lip service to it.

As information is more freely exchanged around the world, the advantages of the Western way of thinking and looking at the world will become ever more apparent. Indeed, in military affairs, this has already happened. The Western tradition of decisive combat, military organization, and logistics has replaced every other military tradition in the world. The Iraqi army, for example, consists not of Persian dehgans but infantry, artillery, and armored troops organized on Western lines into companies, battalions, regiments, and divisions. When it became apparent, over a century ago, that failure to adapt the Western way of war was essentially a guarantee of national suicide, every nation with any pretension to modernism threw out their own military traditions and replaced them with those of the West.

Likewise, it is becoming ever more apparent that there are similarly massive advantages offered to peoples who adopt the core Western values of popular government, the rule of law, free and skeptical inquiry separated from both the state and religion, and free-market capitalism. To adopt those values ultimately means an end to political and religious oppression, more food, money and health care, and less poverty, misery, and fear.

At the recent conference on sustainable development in Johannesburg, we may have seen the first glimmerings of this realization, where, against all expectations, the demands for free-market economic development from the Third World shocked the elites of the UN and Non-Governmental Organizations, whose plans were very different. Perhaps the results of the Iraqi "election" are cause for some cynical sneers. But the very fact of the election's existence may also be a cause for hope.



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