By Carmen Gentile
Iraqi Shiites rally for the release of Ahmed al-Shaibany, an aide to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, after attending Muslim Friday prayers in Al-Sadr city, east of Baghdad, Iraq, Friday Dec. 23, 2005. Sunni Arab and secular Shiite factions demanded that an international body review complaints about voting fraud in last week's elections and threatened to boycott the new legislature. But the United Nations rejected the idea. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
For years I served under Pittsburgh native Gen. Michael Hayden, a 40-year veteran of U.S. military and intelligence and former CIA and National Security Agency director. Four years ago, he sounded the alarm bells for our country when President Trump took office. I listened carefully.
He reminded us that freedom lies behind the thin veil of democracy. It simply cannot be taken for granted. It has to be respected, nurtured, and honored. We have to work hard to protect it. Our institutions and systems, and mutual respect for each other in our imperfect union are what makes America great.
For years I have watched that erode. The White House that I used to respect and brief during Republican President George W. Bush’s two terms turned into a chaotic reality show. The Trump administration maligned our allies through tweets, fired anyone who dared speak to truth, and created a new reality of misinformation and half-truths that pitted American interests against each other. No longer are foreign dictators our enemies, even those proven to have meddled in our very democracy. They are now our friends.
The people of America have been fed lies over and over that the only enemies now are those here within our shores. Our neighbors, our friends, our family. Stay loyal to your party in our newly isolated country or risk becoming a country run by “socialists” and “communists.”
And now America, here we are a week after Election Day on the rockiest of our common ground since 1789 when George Washington took his oath of office. Our current president is eschewing a peaceful transfer of power.
We cannot even agree that we need to fight the global pandemic sickening our people, much less how. More than 71 million American voters feel disenfranchised and discouraged. The other 75 million voters may feel hopeful for a new tomorrow but are exhausted at the thought of how we became so different when we are so much alike.
Everything is on the line. And each of us holds the answer – do we want to move forward together in the great American experiment, to trust each other again, or do we want to move backward towards the abyss? My experience serving overseas tells me backward is not the answer.
In the late 1980s, I studied in the Soviet Union, and in 2003, I returned to work in what became the former Soviet Union. I experienced firsthand what communism and socialism look like. I watched as truly fraudulent elections put in place one autocrat after the other, in some cases with more than 99% of votes.
Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric, America. Where we are heading under president-elect Joe Biden is definitely not there. It’s where we go if we don’t move forward that is much, much darker.
From 2005 to 2009, I lived and worked in Iraq, on the frontlines of war, facilitating tribal engagement. My job was to help the people of Iraq get out from under decades of dictatorship. America spent billions of dollars and thousands of U.S. lives to help bring Iraq closer to democracy.
My job was to forge common ground and convince Iraqis that their collective will for freedom could prevail over their tribal allegiances. They needed to show up, to vote, and to trust the institutions and processes that were put in place to secure that new fundamental right. After the 2005 national elections, there was violence, there was discord, but there were also carefully curated investigations into voter irregularities. Trust, however, has been harder to come by — and violence persists.
In 2007, I volunteered to be an election observer during the contested presidential elections in Kenya. Incumbent Mwai Kibaki declared victory over his opponent Raila Odinga in the backdrop of widespread electoral fraud.
The nation divided over tribal lines and when Kibaki tried to hold onto power despite court rulings against him, violence broke out. I was witness to what happens in a fragile democracy where guns are prevalent, and a highly polarized nation becomes embroiled in an election.
A riot police officer runs away from opposition supporters throwing stones on Monday, Dec. 31, 2007 during riots at the Kibera slum in Nairobi. Police fired shots in the air and sent tear gas into Nairobi's slums Monday as President Mwai Kibaki began a second term after an election marred by violence and allegations that he stole the vote. (AP Photo/Karel Prinsloo)
I was able to get to the airport in time to fly out before things got worse. The rest of the nation was not that fortunate. Hundreds died in violence and thousands were displaced.
Yes, voter irregularities in our U.S. election should be investigated and if evidence exists, taken through the court system for one purpose only: to ensure that every voice has been heard and recorded properly. Not for any one person’s political gain. Not to sow discord in our hundreds’ year-old processes and procedures. Not to boost an agenda in the final months of a term.
Because when America starts meddling in the dangerous game of taking sides along tribal lines, violence happens. That thin veil blows away. And autocracy and despotism are what is left. Maybe you can get on a plane and try to fly out. But the past four years have ensured that the only countries that will take you are run by communists and socialists.
So instead, today let’s reach across the aisle. Take time away from social media platforms that feed our insecurities and breed our hostilities.
Pull ourselves out of our bubbles. Stop looking at each other as enemies. Buy a neighbor a cup of coffee.
Wear a mask even if you don’t normally to show children you care about their future.
Take a breath. Appreciate that veil that protects our freedom. And remember, we are not a perfect union. We never have been.
Sure, there are alternatives to a peaceful transition of power. But I promise, they are not good ones.
Karin Nunan is a former U.S. diplomat and current global risk consultant. She lives in Washington, D.C.