DEMOCRATIZING IRAQ

Research Triangle Park, NC

In her February 23 “Lookout” column, “Hold Bush to His Lie,” Naomi Klein writes that RTI International is guilty of “quietly setting up town councils that are the centerpiece of Washington’s plans and so widely rejected in Iraq they could bring the occupation to its knees.”

There is certainly disagreement among Iraqis about the pace and structure of democratization. RTI International has made great strides since we began working on the local governance project in April 2003 to establish a foundation on which the Iraqi people can create self-government. Local governance programs are working in all eighteen of Iraq’s governorates, engaging more than 19 million people in local policy discourse through local government entities and civil society organizations. Their effort is hardly quiet; their meetings are often boisterous and always animated. Our mission is to empower the people of Iraq, and we are helped every day in that effort by hundreds of Iraqi citizen-employees of RTI International. Although there is controversy about the possible function of the councils in choosing an interim national government, they are widely accepted, contrary to Klein’s claim, in their communities. Klein is guilty of “one size fits all” thinking and discredits the citizens who are working diligently to devise various forms of democratic self-government at the local and national levels.

Rather than disparage the debate among Iraqis about how to establish self-government, we should celebrate their freedom to openly disagree without fear of being permanently silenced by a dictator or colonial ruler. We are proud to work with the Iraqi people as they take part in decision-making for the first time in their lives. By creating institutions of self-government and giving voice to citizens who were silenced under the previous regime, the Local Governance Project is succeeding in helping Iraqis take the initiative.

RONALD JOHNSON
RTI International


KLEIN REPLIES

Toronto

I called RTI’s role in Iraq “quiet” because it has attracted almost no media attention. I realize that the council meetings themselves have been anything but quiet: The fact that they are enormously controversial within Iraq–attracting debate, protests and even violent attack–was the subject of my column. Ronald Johnson chooses to see these raging controversies not as evidence of his company’s failure but of Iraq’s nascent democratic spirit, a convenient position, since it allows RTI to keep the money it’s being paid to set up this discredited system of appointed councils.

Johnson also seems to see RTI as a neutral facilitator, helping Iraqis to help themselves. But RTI gave up the right to claim neutrality when it applied for a contract to remake Iraq’s government before the country had even been invaded. That contract–worth almost half a billion dollars–is by far the largest in RTI’s history. Two other firms that were asked by the United States Agency for International Development to bid on the deal refused to even apply. And in our interview, Johnson admitted that some of his own employees felt sufficiently uncomfortable about working for an occupying power (as opposed to the citizens of Iraq) that they asked not be put on the Iraq project.

Am I guilty of “one-size-fits-all thinking”? Maybe: I certainly believe that the principle of “self-government” requires that people govern themselves–without intervention either from occupying armies or their paid foreign contractors.

NAOMI KLEIN


RALPH: RUN/DON’T/RUN/DON’T/RUN/

We had a huge response to our “Open Letter to Ralph Nader” [Feb. 16] and “Ralph Nader Replies: Whither The Nation?” [“Exchange,” March 8]. The mail was about even between those who said, “Run, Ralph, Run!” and those who said, “Ralph, Don’t Run!”
   –The Editors

Chicago

Dear Ralph: I agree with The Nation‘s editors; do not run. Of course, you will be regarded by detractors as a populist Coriolanus; as sharing the Shakespeare warrior-hero’s fatal attribute: hubris. Precisely the opposite is the case. In your candidacy, you are underestimating what you have accomplished, during these past thirtysome years, as Public Citizen numero uno. You, more than any other, have educated millions of Americans as to the abuse of corporate power. Of course, this has been duly noted by the politicos running for the presidency, including John Kerry.

David Corn, in his February 25 encomium to John Kerry, writes of his willingness “to challenge power, to pursue values rather than political advantage, to take risks for the public interest.” That’s a mouthful–with more than a touch of poetic license. Need we mention his gutlessness in the matter of the pre-emptive strike? Nonetheless, Corn does lay out a list of issues on which Kerry has taken stands that could only be described as Naderesque. The other candidates have, too, been so influenced.

This is your job, your destiny, Ralph, as our public interest watchman. You and your wondrous Raiders have exposed corporate venality as no one ever had before, with an influence beyond that of the best muckraking journalists of the Gilded Age. And there is a long, long way to go.

With Kerry as President (as a small-time gambler, I see the odds as better than even), your mission will be unchanged: keeping your gimlet eye on him just as steadily as you’ve done with his predecessors.

As an admirer, I don’t want to see you in the history books as a footnoted token candidate. You are, to borrow a Dick Cheney phrase, big time. Ralph, don’t run.

STUDS TERKEL


Berkeley, Calif.

Your open letter to Ralph Nader demanding that he not run for President this year demonstrates your irrelevance to American politics writ large–whether Nader runs or not. You rush to advocate a static position and in your haste blindly ignore many dynamic possibilities inherent in an unfolding election year. Then you overconfidently predict a detailed campaign trajectory that you will only watch from the sidelines because you have simultaneously rejected having an effective hand in the process.

Consider just two examples of what you are willing to give up. First, a process whereby the Democratic nominee could expand and energize his progressive vote by cherry-picking concrete proposals from Nader and, second, any potential for Nader to take independent and Republican votes from Bush by making a case against his Administration that would not be credible coming from a Democrat. (As you know, non-campaign efforts to attack Bush will increasingly face formidable legal challenges.)

Beating George W. Bush while also keeping crucial issues in play this election year will indeed require that progressives “play chess on many levels,” politically speaking; instead, Nation editors seem diligently committed to a game of checkers. That ought to suit Bush and company just fine.

TAREK MILLERON


Brooklyn, NY

Dear Ralph: I wonder if you can imagine raising a child to the age of 18 or 20 only to see his (her) life thrown away, almost casually, by a government bent on world domination. Most of us for whom the Democratic Party is a continual source of disappointment and outrage do not have to contend with the dark side of this Administration’s brutal policies, so careless of human beings. My priority this election is to stop the killing, even if it means voting for someone a lot less than ideal. You can still affect voter turnout, so do it. I urge everyone to vote to stop the senseless loss of life our government is promoting. Then we can talk about walking and running.

KATE THOM FITZGERALD


Miami

Et tu, Brute? Shame on you, for even implying that Ralph Nader should not run. Your fears are ridiculous, and the very idea of shutting down a viable candidate with an important message is about as un-American as you can get. Don’t lose the values that make progressive thinkers stay one step ahead of the pack. It’s our morality and sense of right and wrong that guide us. America is not about ignorance, arrogance, treachery, hypocrisy and greed; it’s about truth, justice, freedom and equality.

MIKE TRACHTENBERG


Barrington, RI

If the Democrats lose because Nader runs, it will again be their own fault for being Republican-lite. While another four years of Bush is horrifying, sometimes it has to get worse before it can get better. Run, Ralph, Run!

DAVID HAWLA


Pelham, Mass.

Thank you for asking Ralph Nader not to run. As a progressive mother of a soldier serving in Iraq, nothing scares me more than seeing this next election lost–especially because of an idealistic, honorable person. I am disturbed beyond fear by the thought that Bush has a chance at another four years.

LAURA STRANLUND


Carmel Valley, Calif.

It is sad indeed when Ralph Nader can’t see the forest through the Bushes. Four more years of Bush will set back the nation–and all Nader’s accomplishments. His decision to run for President again is a selfish and egotistical act and a huge disappointment to people who have had great respect for his work over the years.

LEWIS GOODKIN


Monroe, Me.

Imploring Ralph not to run, The Nation has once again demonstrated the power of liberal influence to change the course of history: zilch.

GREG BATES, publisher,
Common Courage Press


THE TRUE PATRIOTS, LARGE & SMALL

Jerome, Ariz.

It’s not just large cities passing resolutions denouncing the Patriot Act but also some of the smallest [“In Fact,” March 8]. Last year Jerome, Arizona (pop. 450), passed one. We’re all in this together.

MARY “MIMI” CURRIER