Around this time 15 years ago, I was a reporter walking through Baghdad with an Iraqi family on their way to vote in what many considered to be the first free elections in the country's history. Saddam Hussein, a dictator ousted by the U.S. following the 2003 invasion, had held a referendum the previous year in which he said that 100 percent of the people had voted and that they had all voted for him.
Many of the people I met in my years as a foreign correspondent were inspired by the American experiment. If America is still to lead by example, it cannot allow an election to be delegitimized.
To prevent fraud, all Iraqi voters had their right index fingers dipped in deep purple ink, creating a mark whose stain couldn't be removed for days. We walked to the voting places for what seemed like miles, because a ban on private cars had been declared to deter car bombings, a frequent and horrific occurrence.
How brave, many of us reporters mused, watching traumatized Iraqis venture out to vote in the unending violence and uncertainty. How quaint, we whispered, looking at them hold up their purple fingers to show that they had voted and could prove it with a mark on their flesh. How inspiring, we gushed. A free and fair election after the brutal dictatorship of Hussein was a long-awaited achievement, and the George W. Bush administration could rely on us to spread the success story around the world.
In those days, I could never have imagined that instead of America's doling out advice about how to run free and fair elections to the globe's scrappy states and emerging democracies, there would be a time for the world to give it to us. But that is precisely the situation we find ourselves in. More than five days after former Vice President Joe Biden was projected as the president-elect — a call made by numerous media outlets based on county-by-county ballot counts — President Donald Trump refuses to concede.
Only a handful of Republican senators have congratulated Biden, while the rest lie low or prop up Trump's claims of massive voter fraud. Attorney General William Barr has followed suit, mobilizing the Justice Department as a tool in the service of Trump's bid to remain in office despite having lost.
Right-wing media organizations like Fox News — which initially reported on Biden's win in the Electoral College as fact and even pulled away from Trump's press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, as she gave a propagandistic presser claiming there was election fraud — have begun to provide a megaphone to those denying Trump's victory and promoting his #StopTheSteal theories as if they held merit.
Little wonder that 70 percent of Republicans now say they don't believe that the election was free and fair, according to a new Politico/Morning Consult poll. Some of my journalism students from staunch Republican families are thoroughly confused. A few days ago they were ready to accept reality, but now they're not so sure.
Perhaps the most troubling of all were the comments made late Tuesday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told reporters that there would be a "smooth transition to a second Trump administration." Hearing the man who serves as America's senior diplomat make such a statement is so gobsmacking to world-watchers like me that I had to replay it numerous times.
Was it an "unfunny joke," as some suggested? Or was the smile he cracked after uttering the sentence an acknowledgment of how outrageous a pronouncement it was, a nervous release under the terrible strain of trying to appear normal as he prepares for a seven-country tour while simultaneously seeing whether he can help the boss pull off a coup?
For anyone concerned with America's leadership role on the world stage, the joke is on us. Since World War II, Washington has been a do-good gorilla in the name of democracy, giving hundreds of billions of dollars in assistance, know-how and other aid to build up civil society and independent media, all in the name of shoring up election systems and the rule of law around the globe.
I've watched those dollars at work on election days in about 10 different countries, but also in year-round awareness campaigns, training programs and institution-building aimed at fostering democratic norms in countries still emerging from devastating wars or life under oppressive regimes.
Over the years, I've reported on Afghan women running for office despite death threats, Palestinians being trained to reform their court system and Filipinos impeaching their president, all with assistance and inspiration from America. Even when the victors haven't been particularly friendly to Washington, such as in the election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's AK Party in Turkey in 2002, there's been applause from Washington and other Western capitals when the process is deemed free and fair and when a peaceful transfer of power is achieved.
So far, the State Department's stamp of approval is still coveted by most nations seeking international legitimacy, while an American warning truly stings and can lead to pariah status. Take Vice President Mike Pence's criticism of Venezuela's 2018 election, in which he said, "Venezuela's election was a sham — neither free nor fair." The Trump administration often backs up its criticism with threat of sanctions, as it did over China's actions in Hong Kong.
Whatever the domestic differences over U.S. foreign policy, whether it's the rationale for the Iraq War or Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, when it comes to free and fair elections, there's been a decadeslong nonpartisan American interest in helping democratic actors and civil institutions flourish.
Now, how can America continue to play a supporting role in encouraging these processes and maintain legitimacy as a kind of global schoolmarm who metes out punishments for not behaving nicely when at home there's denial of an election's legitimate outcome? How can Pompeo hope to retain credibility and influence when he chides countries for breaking democratic norms, as he did with the former Nicaraguan president Monday or in decrying voter "disenfranchisement" in Myanmar on Tuesday, if he himself is discrediting America's own election?
Perhaps the most embarrassing of all is the racism embedded in the Republicans' thinly veiled attacks on the integrity of the voting process in urban areas with high proportions of Black and brown voters. If Trump and surrogates like Sen. Lindsey Graham keep saying votes from places like Philadelphia — as Graham put it, a city as "crooked as a snake" — can't be trusted, what standing will America have to tell other countries to protect the rights of their own minorities?
For anyone concerned with America's leadership role on the world stage, the joke is on us.
In his latest criticisms, Pompeo this week complained that Myanmar engaged in the "cancellation of voting in parts of several states and regions." Ironically, that is exactly what Trump and his lawyers are trying to do in a number of states across America.
Many of the people I met in my years as a foreign correspondent were inspired by the American experiment. If America is still to lead by example, it cannot allow an election to be delegitimized or the will of the people to be undermined.