Friday, May 27, 2005

Rights of the minority

As Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice landed in Baghdad last week, there was much at stake. The neoconservative Jihad that the Bush administration launched in the wake of 9/11 has not been going well. Gone are the dreams of a Shock and Awe campaign that would stun the combatants into submission. Gone are the visions of Iraqis greeting our GIs with garlands of flowers and working speedily to embrace their democratic future. Despite the protestations of the administration and its minions, the media has declined to show the positive stories of reconstruction at anything near the rate of the stories about the insurrection, car bombings and steadily increasing American deaths.

Condi Rice’s mission in Iraq was clear, to induce the Shia and Kurdish leaders to take bold steps to be inclusive of the Sunni minority in the government and in the drafting of a new constitution. The Sunni Iraqis in large measure boycotted the much-heralded national elections, but even if they were represented in the national assembly at a level commensurate with their 20% share of the population, under any traditional democratic rubric their power would be severely limited. But Rice was making a more fundamental point: to create a successful democratic state, inclusion of minority voices and provision for minority rights was essential.

One Shia leader––who like the rest of the world can watch U.S. democracy on TV––resisted the notion that they should show grace in victory and suggested that they were treating the Sunnis with more deference than the Bush administration was treating the Democrats, who received almost half of the vote. And despite the continuing protestations by conservative Christians of their victimization at the hands of the collective tyrannies of the judiciary, the media and Hollywood, the Shia can make a fair case that they suffered even greater depredation at the hands of the Sunni leadership during the 35-year rule of Saddam Hussein.

Democracy is a frustrating institution, and all the more so it seems for majority parties who are forced to accommodate the demands of a pesky minority. This week in Washington, we watched as an eleventh-hour deal was orchestrated in the Senate by a group of centrist Republicans and Democrats that provided for up-or-down votes on the Senate floor for some, but not all, of the administration’s blocked judicial nominees. Reacting to the news of a resolution of the stand-off, the White House disavowed any embrace of compromise as Press Secretary Scott McClelland announced that they “will continue working to push for an up-or-down vote on all our nominees.”

Later, however, it became apparent that the White House was complicit in the deal. It appears that when it became clear that the Republicans lacked the votes to pull the nuclear trigger, the White House dispatched Senators Lindsay Graham and Mike DeWine to negotiate a deal. McClelland, it seemed, was grandstanding to the Party base, and the White House was quite willing to pull the rug out from under the senators that were doing its bidding and leave them twisting slowly in the wind in the face of right wing cries of cowardice and duplicity.

How now does Condi Rice convince the Shia and their Kurdish allies to give voice––and power––to the Sunni when they have the votes, as it were, to prevail? Up-or-down votes and majority rule are all the rage back home, as Thursday night’s successful Democratic filibuster of the John Bolton confirmation as U.N. Secretary reignited Republican anger at their own impotence in the face of a Constitutionally-empowered minority. McClelland––yes, the same partisan who declined to embrace the compromise on judges a few days earlier––decried the loss of the good feelings from earlier in the week, noting that “Just 72 hours after all the good will and bipartisanship, it's disappointing to see the Democratic leadership resort back to such a partisan approach.”

To add some needed nuance to the debate, the rip tide of support on the right for simple majority votes may ebb somewhat in the coming weeks. After the House this week passed a stem cell research bill against White House objections, Republican Senator Sam Brownback, one of many 2008 aspirants––a 100-1 shot today at for those wagering the race––announced his intention to filibuster the companion stem bill if it reaches the floor of the Senate. Perhaps the use of the filibuster by a senator in the name of appeasing the right wing will make the hypocrisy of the up-or-down vote rhetoric just a bit too obvious.

What the Shia understand all too well is that building democratic institutions is not about good will or being graceful in victory, it is about giving power to a minority that they deeply distrust and at whose hands they have suffered. As they meet with the Secretary of State, they must ask how if the Bush administration cannot abide minority rights at home, it can in good faith demand their embrace abroad.

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