The images of Iraqis crowding polling places for that country’s first free election in a half century were both moving and hopeful. The voting, while marred by violence, irregularities and boycotts, went off more smoothly than even the most optimistic members of the Bush administration had dared predict.

Unfortunately, President Bush and his aides could not let the images speak for themselves. The White House spin machine had to declare, even before the last votes were cast, that what happened Sunday was a “turning point” in the painful history of that battered country.

The claim is another example of the sort of wishful thinking that has so frequently trumped reality when it comes to the administration’s approach to Iraq in particular and the Middle East in general.

Invariably, when the Bush administration tries to tell the world how to interpret images from Iraq, it leaps to conclusions that are far removed from reality.

For instance, the Bush administration and its amen corner in the media spun images of Saddam Hussein firing an ancient rifle to suggest that the Iraqi leader was a madman who would soon be brandishing more devastating weapons. Thus, pictures of a thug acting thuggish were used to turn the discourse leading up to the invasion of Iraq into a discussion of nothing but weapons of mass destruction that did not exist and “threats” that were not real.

After the invasion, the Bush spin machine used manufactured image of a handful of Iraqis toppling a statue of the deposed Iraqi dictator to suggest that the mission had been accomplished. But thousands of American casualties attest to the fact that it takes more than one fallen monument to win the hearts and minds of the people of an occupied land.

Then, the spin machine used the image of a captured Saddam Hussein to suggest that the insurgency against the U.S. occupation had lost its touchstone and would soon fade. But the insurgency only strengthened in the months after Hussein was incarcerated.

So when President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, their allies in Congress and their media acolytes claim that the images of Iraqis voting should be seen as a sign that a critical turning point has been reached, Americans — not to mention Iraqis — have good reason to be dubious.

Yes, of course, it is good that Iraqis are voting. But, after so many false starts, the test of whether this election is actually a turning point will not be met by mere images of ballots sliding into boxes. It will be met only by reality. And the reality that will matter is that of an Iraqi government standing on its own two feet, organizing the policing and the defense of that country, managing it’s oil wealth and establishing relations with the rest of the world based on its needs — not the dictates of an occupying force.

According to polls conducted just before Sunday’s voting, the vast majority of Iraqis see the U.S. forces that are on the ground in Iraq as an occupying army. The same surveys show that the majority of Iraqis want the U.S. forces to leave.

If Sunday’s elections in Iraq were both legitimate and consequential, if they selected a government that is representative of the Iraqi people, and if that government has the authority to set the course for what should be a sovereign country, then one of its first acts would by any reasonable calculus be to ask the United States to establish a timetable for the rapid withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraqi soil. After all, unless President Bush has come up with new definitions for words such as “freedom” and “democracy,” it would seem that such an action would be in entirely the spirit of his inaugural address.

That image of a freely elected Iraqi government, fully empowered to take charge and determined to implement the will of the people who elected it, would indeed be worthy of celebration by those of who cherish democracy — in Iraq and in the United States.

Until it is produced, however, the rational reaction to the latest set of images from Iraq is a skepticism that the Bush administration — and too much of the American political class and media — still seems to be incapable of mustering.


John Nichols’s new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) will be published January 30. Howard Zinn says, “At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift–a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history–that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country.” Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, “Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial.”