Democracy's March Continues As Iraqis Go to the Polls

By Kathleen Troia "K.T. "McFarlandNational Security Expert

The mainstream media is busy patting America on the back for electing a man who would not have been allowed the full rights of citizenship a mere 50 years ago. That a candidate of Barack Obama's background could be selected as president of the United States merely on the strength of his abilities is a true testament to the strength of our democratic system. Whatever your political persuasion or policy preferences, Barack Obama's election is a symbol of the strength of American democracy.

But there is another election going on this weekend, also of historic importance, which is getting very little notice by America's media mandarins -- the regional elections in Iraq.

The thought of free and open elections, organized and administered by the Iraqi people, in which all ethnic groups would participate both as candidates and voters, in the country that was once brutally controlled by Saddam Hussein was as unthinkable a decade ago in Iraq as the thought of electing a black man as president of the United States was 50 years ago.

Granted, Iraq's democracy got off to a rocky start. Many Sunnis boycotted the initial elections, only to find themselves frozen out of the new government. Many of the first post-Saddam leaders proved unwilling or unable to rise above their tribal allegiances. Some Shiites thought the new democratic era was a chance for them to settle scores for the decades of unfair treatment they'd received at the hands of Saddam Hussein's Sunni Ba'athist hencemen.

With so much political baggage (and much more) democracy in Iraq has evolved by fits and starts over the last few years.

That process is by no means over. But elections anywhere rarely go off without a hitch, even in well established democracies, as we saw in the United States in Florida with "hanging chads" in 2000.

The Iraqi elections are important not just for Iraqis, but for reformers throughout the Arab Muslim world. Elections are now on the public agenda of every one of those countries. Increasingly, totalitarian leaders in the Middle East have a lot of explaining to do if they're not moving toward free and open elections. That, too, would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

As a result of Iraqi democracy, the march of history in the Middle East has changed direction. It used to be a series of sclerotic authoritarian regimes moving increasingly toward of hereditary dictatorships -- in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Libya and others. But their legitimacy is now called into question by their own people every time Iraqis go to the polls. People throughout the region are asking the question, ever more openly, why can't they chose their leaders if the Iraqis can?

In the end, the Iraq war has cost far too much, in both Iraqi and American lives and treasure. The initial rationale for starting the war, Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, has been discredited. But the one goal that wasn't articulated at the time may be the one that ultimately endures -- a self-sustaining, democratic Iraq -- the first and only one in the heart of the Arab Muslim world.

President Obama's supporters chanted "Yes We Can" throughout the American election. Perhaps voters in Iraq should take up a similar theme, "Yes We Have."

Katheen Troia "KT" McFarland served in national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan Administrations. She was a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from New York in 2006.