The Iraqi Example

Robert Alt

July 8, 2004

Baghdad, Iraq— Tuesday night, I was at the Internet café particularly late, attempting to send a few e-mails before it closed. As I wrapped up the last of my messages, I heard an American talking to a group of Iraqis, including the Nirvana-listening techie whom I mentioned here. It was at once apparent that the American was a reporter. He was discussing Nick Berg’s execution, and as he talked, the discussion became increasingly conspiracy-focused. The timing of Berg’s death and the concomitant shift in media attention was too good for the administration. Then he shifted to the war. He explained that Dick Cheney was very powerful, and that the real reason for the war was, of course, increasing his Halliburton profits. Having solved all the problems of the Middle East, he next discussed U.S. tax policy, and how President Bush had made a terrible fiscal decision by giving tax breaks to the rich and not to the poor. After holding court for some time, he did have the candor to suggest that other Americans might disagree with his assessment. I had already stood up from behind the frosted glass partition to leave, and at this suggestion announced that the NRO writer standing ten feet from him did, in fact, disagree.

I must admit that I was not immediately inclined to respond. I have grown far too accustomed to hearing the liberal theories of reporters in Iraq to be drawn in by every provocation. For instance, on the day that Saddam appeared before the investigative judge, a reporter in the press room expressed at some length and volume his disappointment at the fact that Saddam’s trial would swamp the news about how “terribly” things are going in Iraq—an effect of the trial that he surmised was planned. (Never mind the fact that the trial will not take place for some months, or the fact that the human-rights community has been screaming about the delay in charging Saddam.) In case there was any remaining question about his politics, he offered the obligatory reference to the administration as “jihadists” and “Nazis.” Having predetermined that the trial was a sham to draw attention away from the real stories, he spent the rest of the day asking everyone whether Saddam could get a fair trial—a question asked with a dripping skepticism, clearly intended to ferret out some potential failure, which, of course, is the sine qua non of “real” news.

But on Tuesday I decided to respond, predominantly because I did not want the Iraqis present to have only the “grassy knoll” side of the story. As I explained the error of my interlocutor’s ways, the Iraqis in the room nodded and smiled with approval. They asked me to sit down and join them. The Iraqis liked America and what it had done in removing Saddam. One of the Internet café workers, Saif, exclaimed that he loved America, and that “when I see U.S. tanks, I see the future of Iraq.” They demonstrated by their verbal and nonverbal response that they had little tolerance for the partisan squabbling of this liberal reporter.

I soon discovered the reason for this impromptu discussion. An independent journalist from China—to protect his identity we’ll call him Mr. Wu—was also in the group, and he was seeking Iraqi and American thoughts about Iraq and the war. He began peppering me with questions about the war, such as why America removed Saddam. I explained that the administration came here for many reasons. The perceived threat from the WMD program was one reason, but continuing violations of U.N. resolutions, grotesque human-rights transgressions, and intelligence regarding ties to terrorism (made all the more real by Vladimir Putin’s recent revelation about Iraqi plans to participate in terror attacks after 9/11) all contributed to the decision. Again, the Iraqis in the room were pleased—quite literally puffing up their chests in approval—while the other reporter took this opportunity to leave.

Mr. Wu was very intrigued by America’s interest in democracy in the region. He inquired whether America has brought more freedom to Iraq. I told him to look at where he was: standing in an Internet café—a place that couldn’t have existed before Saddam’s fall—in the middle of Baghdad. We talked about the proliferation of satellite dishes and cellular phones—and, with them, ideas. He asked the Iraqis in the room if Internet was available like it is today when Saddam was in power. Their response was a hearty laugh.

It was at this point that I got to learn a bit about Mr. Wu. He lamented that many of the freedoms now enjoyed by the Iraqis are not available in his home country. He is part of the pro-democracy movement seeking to change that. He publishes for a pro-democracy website with 10 million readers in China, and he is in Iraq to provide an account of what this new Iraqi democracy is really like, in order to counteract the pro-Saddam propaganda the Chinese generally receive. While he does not criticize the Chinese government directly in his articles, by writing about the problems of Saddam’s tyranny and the benefits of freedom in Iraq, his message for China is able to get through.

From our conversation, his experience in Iraq appears to be very similar to mine: meeting Iraqis who are pleased that America removed Saddam, who wish to build a democracy, and who are basking in their newfound freedoms. Mr. Wu clearly longed for this kind of experience in his own country. He is a man of great courage, who is taking a tremendous risk in reporting about democracy from Iraq. Within one hour of his articles being posted on websites, the Chinese government sent agents from their embassy to his residence in Iraq to question him, to request a copy of his passport, and to ask him to leave. He refused. He noted that it is a sign of the increasingly progressive nature of China that the government asked, and did not require. But he is not sure whether he will be welcome when he returns, for he knows many of his fellow countrymen who are in prison for similar political offenses.

Anyone who wonders why America’s efforts in Iraq are important need only talk to Mr. Wu. You see, the world is watching. China is watching. Those in the Chinese government wishing to perpetuate tyranny are watching and advocating failure for the new government, but people who long for freedom are looking to Iraq to see whether democracy can flourish. Iraqi democracy must succeed, not just for Iraq, or for the region, but to provide hope for men like Mr. Wu—hope that, one day, they too may enjoy the freedom Iraqis now have.

Robert D. Alt is a Fellow in Legal and International Affairs at The John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University currently reporting from Iraq. You can follow his daily progress at No Left Turns.