World Leaders Forum Slideshow

Student Essays

Jalal Talabani: Optimist or Puppet?

By Maryum Saifee

As President Jalal Talabani profusely thanked the United States for its admirable role in liberating Iraq from tyranny and introducing democracy to the region talabani01 | start: 0:7:13 | end: 0:7:40, I couldn't help but question his optimism and reflect on some of the debates discussed in a course I took last semester at Columbia entitled "Transitional Justice and Human Rights." In the course, we looked at how transitional justice initiatives like constitution-making in South Africa, for example, can help facilitate political transformation to a more just and equitable society. With the unrelenting Iraqi resistance against US occupation and Iraqi public opinion polls citing distrust of occupation forces, I would argue that President Talabani's remarks are not reflective of his constituency, but rather a parroting of "freedom and democracy" rhetoric employed by the Bush administration to legitimate war and sanitize occupation.

In the wide-range of case studies we examined in the class, all were noted by the fact that political transformation took time and was most successful when the processes were participatory and independent. In the case of South Africa, the constitution-making process took five years and solicited mass public participation. Although the South African constitution is regarded by many human rights advocates to be a major accomplishment in marking the country's post-apartheid transition, the South African government still faces challenges almost a decade later in translating constitutional rights, particularly economic and land rights, into reality.

Like South Africa, Iraq is a complex multiethnic society having to come to terms with a past ruled by an elite oppressive minority. It is to be expected that Iraq's constitution-making process will also be a time-consuming and challenging process of negotiations and compromise. However, I would argue that the process differs from South Africa in that it is further complicated by US occupation. With the US dictating the constitutional timetable in an effort to expedite the process, and even making recommendations as to what content should be included or excluded, it is likely that Iraqi people will not view the process as legitimate and reflective of a sovereign and independent Iraqi state. In its rush to meet the US deadline, the constitution's drafting committee has yet to settle its most contentious issues such as federalism or the role of Islamic law. In listening to Talabani's appreciation for the US ambassador's role in drafting the constitution talabani02 | start: 0:16:42 | end: 0:16:56, I was struck yet again by his lack of critical discussion on the implications of US intervention in undermining the legitimacy of the Iraqi constitutional process.

Throughout his speech, Talabani not only reiterated his appreciation for the US role in facilitating democracy in Iraq — noting that the US presence in the country is "vital for democracy" — but also went on to contend that a stable Iraq will inspire the democratization of its neighbors in the region. Just as many Iraqis understand the US presence in Iraq to be yet another colonial footprint in their history, other nations in the region are likely to share similar feelings of skepticism. While living in rural Jordan for as a Peace Corps volunteer and traveling throughout the Middle East, I observed that most people I spoke with across the spectrum (urban, rural, Muslim, Christian, Jordanian, Iraqi, Palestinian, etc.) — in sharp contrast to Talabani — regarded US interests in the region as fueled by oil and/or powerful pro-Israel lobbying groups rather than the "peace and democracy" it claims to benignly bestow upon the peoples of the Middle East.

While reflecting on Talabani's speech, another class I am taking this semester came to mind called "Modern State and Colonial Subject," where we are looking at how early European states and eventually American colonists used similar "civilizing" rhetoric to justify the brutal occupation and destruction of Native Americans in the New World. These colonizers argued that dispossessing the natives of their land and lives was a noble deed because they were enlightening them with a superior civilization. They referred to the Native Americans as "Savages" — a word that, ironically, still appears in the same Declaration of Independence we are exporting to Iraq as a template for democracy. Like the US colonial project to control and subdue Native Americans, the US "civilizing project" in Iraq assumes that civilization in Iraq never existed and that Iraqis, like the Native Americans before them, are somehow too inferior to be left to govern themselves. With the looting of the national museum in Baghdad, gross human rights violations at Abu Ghraib, and a brutal coalition military occupation, I would argue that the US' "civilizing" project in Iraq is purely a pursuit of US strategic interests that has done nothing but rob Iraqis of their history, humanity, and dignity.

One could argue that even if the war in Iraq is unjust, the US occupation of Iraq is a necessary evil and must be finished so that we can instigate a political transformation in Iraq. If the Iraqi population felt itself to be in partnership with the US — as Talabani claims in his speech — how can we explain such a strong and sustained Iraqi resistance against US occupation? Like other Arab countries in the region that the US has backed financially in exchange for political support (namely Jordan and Egypt, the two largest recipients of US foreign aid next to Israel), Iraqis and their Arab neighbors would be right to question any sort of partnership with the US as purely altruistic and with no political strings attached. It seems more likely that the goal of US occupation in Iraq is not to bring about freedom and democracy, but rather to install a puppet regime in the guise of democracy that would subdue Iraqis into serving US political and economic interests. Given that any US-installed government in Iraq will not be seen as legitimate in the eyes of Iraqis, I would contend that the US' interference in Iraqi political reconstruction will only undermine any meaningful transitional justice process.

If we look at examples throughout recent history, colonial projects usually reap short-term gains for the colonizer at the long-term expense of the colonized. From the communal carnage of Gujurat to genocide in Rwanda, the colonizer's strategy of pitting Hindu against Muslim or Hutu against Tutsi has almost always led to disaster in the postcolonial pullout. With Iraqi borders as arbitrarily drawn by colonialists as those of India and Rwanda, it is likely that the different ethnic and religious groups — Kurds, Shi'as, and Sunnis, among others — will engage in a power struggle. It will take time to build and reconstruct a nation that has suffered such a traumatic past. The Bush administration's quick-fix democratization of Iraq along ethnic lines has only agitated the tension between these groups and created conditions for civil war and greater political instability in Iraq and throughout the region.

The Bush administration's latest fad of labeling nations who may challenge our strategic interests as part of an "axis of evil," and naming nonstate actors as "terrorists" when it is politically expedient, has increased divisions among nations and individuals and increased terrorist attacks and instigated conflict worldwide. As President Bollinger noted at the outset of Talabani's speech, in our era of globalization and interconnectedness bollinger | start: 0:1:15 | end: 0:1:24, it is all the more important that we are informed and think critically about what is happening around the world, because world events profoundly impact our own safety and well-being at home now more than ever before.

This essay was sponsored by the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) and produced using their technology, Video Interactions for Teaching and Learning (VITAL).