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The Second Election

Kieran Healy has a smart post on the prospects that Iraqi democracy will genuinely consolidate itself over the years, i.e., develop into a situation where you have not one election, but two (or three) complete with the peaceful alternation of power and so forth. The prospects aren't great but, honestly, given the nature of the ancien régime and the torments of the quasi-anarchic present, I'm not sure Iraqis need to find themselves living in a fully functioning democracy to wind up better off in the long term. Which reminds me to point out that we should be seeing the real democratic (or not, depending on how it turns out) action in Afghanistan soon after they hold their parliamentary elections. The troubles with the Afghan presidential election were basically subsumed in Hamid Karzai's overwhelming popularity. The parliamentary election should be the first opportunity for real politics in which we get to see if Karzai's opponents are willing to act as a democratic opposition party or will be more inclined to take advantage of Afghanistan's extraordinarily weak state apparatus to simply evade (or subvert) the law and possibly resist through force of arms.

Similarly, the most interesting thing to watch as the Transitional National Assembly tries to put a cabinet (and the confusing institution of the Presidency Council) together will be less who forms the government, than who forms the opposition. So far, the inclination in Iraq has been for all forces "inside the political process" to band together in the interests of fighting the insurgency. That's an understandable reaction to the circumstances, and it would be understandable if it persisted. Nevertheless, to really move toward democracy it's pretty essential that you have a peaceful, democratic opposition not just an insurgency. I think it's pretty likely that we won't get one. Instead we'll see a broad coalition of all the major factional elites trying to establish a pluralistic, but non-democratic regime capable of combatting the insurgency. Something roughly akin to what you see in Lebanon.

Based on the pure humanitarian calculus, that seems like a "good enough" outcome, even if one might hope for something better. I don't think it's especially important for critics of the war to deny that things may well wind up this way. As I've argued many times in the past, the fact that a given venture costing several hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives managed to accomplish some good things for many people is insufficient to justify the venture. The money and manpower we've deployed in Iraq could have been used to bring about regime change in Burma or to provide clean drinking waters to millions of people or to halt genocide in Darfur or to block the Iranian nuclear program or any number of other things.

If Iraq winds up in an okay state, all those opportunity costs will be forgotten and war opponents will (unjustly) appear to have been discredited by events. That's wrong, but I could live with it. It would be better, certainly, then us achieving public vindication by a spiral in which things get worse and worse. Speaking reality-based, war proponents have been thoroughly discredited ever since the national security case (WMD plus al-Qaeda ties) fell apart a long, long time ago. Anyone who actually proposed an undertaking on this scale for purely humanitarian purposes would be laughed out of the room, and rightly so. Beyond that, the odds of real success remain long, and even if we do succeed the humanitarian benefits of the massive increase in the Iraqi death rate caused by this adventure seem questionable.

January 30, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

That "massive increase in the Iraqi death rate" is bogus. The fact that the "reality-based" people keep waving it about as a bloody flag (fig-leaf?) show that they are anything but.

Posted by: am | Jan 30, 2005 8:34:05 PM

am,

Got a cite? Or are we supposed to accept your word on this (heh)?

Posted by: Joel | Jan 30, 2005 8:44:08 PM

I agree with almost everything in this post, but it does seem a bit churlish in the face of jubilant, ink-stained Iraqi Shias and Kurds. That's not a criticism of Matt, it's a criticism of the substantive "opportunity costs" argument, of which I agree.

Not quite on-topic, but Juan Cole and NeedleNose have good, informed takes on the Iraqi election, and why we're seeing an election in Jan. 2005, instead of July 2003. Supporters of the administration will say "July 2003, Jan 2005, what's the difference? What's 18 months in the long run?"

I disagree with this, but I hope they're right, and that there are no long term consequences of delaying the first post-Saddam Iraqi election.

Posted by: roublen vesseau | Jan 30, 2005 9:22:59 PM

And I should add that the Bush administration does deserve real credit for abandoning its previous point of view and embracing real elections, and Bush does deserve real credit, regardless of his motivations, for mobilizing a great deal of American money and goodwill for a cause greater than self-interest. Now its up to us liberals to argue for molizing resources and goodwill for other equally great causes, in addition to nation-building in Iraq.

Posted by: roublen vesseau | Jan 30, 2005 9:32:18 PM

Supporters of the administration will say "July 2003, Jan 2005, what's the difference? What's 18 months in the long run?"

No. Supporters of the administration will say "July 2003??? Are you f*%^&ing kidding me??? THIS election took about a YEAR to plan and accomplish, and THAT was barely enough. You can't just snap your fingers and have an election. Anyone who thinks that an election could have occurred within 3 months of the end of major military action is obviously an absolute idiot (I know, saying that about Juan Cole is redundant, but...).

Posted by: Al | Jan 30, 2005 9:41:38 PM

Just remember that combatting the insurgency really isn't the primary raison d'etre of this Assembly--writing a Constitution is. In that sense, I think we are likely to see very well-defined poles (or multiple poles). In fact, for many, the breakdown of this process over constitution-writing is what is most feared.

Posted by: David Holiday | Jan 30, 2005 9:49:53 PM

We have to give the Iraqi people major props for having the courage and cojones to vote under such inauspicious conditions-- helps to remind those of us who live in democratic nations about what we've got. That being said, I doubt that this election will do squat to ease the insurgency long term, and I'm frankly downright embarrassed at the pom-poms that Dan Rather, NYT, et al. all dragged out to celebrate the event. We've been here before. After the quick fall of the Baathist regime (and the toppling of the Saddam statue), and the "Mission Accomplished" banner on the aircraft carrier, then the liquidation of Uday and Qusay, then the apprehension of Saddam, then the handover of power to the Allawi government, then the bloody crushing of Fallujah-- in every single damn one of those instances, many among both liberals and conservatives were hopping like cheerleaders that this would finally break the back of the insurgency. It didn't-- in each case, the insurgency merely redoubled. (And, frankly, these elections are hardly "historic" for the Middle East-- as Juan Cole has noted, Iran in 1997 and Bahrain in 2002 have also held elections which, though they had their own major flaws, were arguably comparable to what took place in Iraq today.) It's fair and desirable to be cautiously optimistic, and I certainly hope that we've truly and dearly turned an impassable corner in Iraq, but all the hoopla here just isn't justified by the facts on the ground.

For one thing, holding an election is hardly a difficult or significant feat in and of itself-- Saddam himself held staged elections on repeated occasions. What matters is that the results of said elections are perceived as free and representative, are *generally accepted* and produce a consensus, and lead to a rapprochement among opposing groups who recognize the result and consider it legitimate. The US held a (relatively peaceful) election in 1860 that brought Abraham Lincoln to power, but it was precisely this result that provoked the bloody US Civil War because of questions about legitimacy (the split among 4 candidates) and b/c of irreconcilable differences among the affected parties, i.e. the Northern and Southern states. Anti-communist partisans-- aided by the USA-- actively sought to thwart elections of Viet Minh reps in Indochina and, of course, Salvador Allende in Chile. Simply b/c those people came (or would have come) to power through an election, that was insufficient to mollify opposition enough to enable people to accept the result. In Iraq, everything is exacerbated by the presence of an occupying power with a substantial and obvious military presence on the ground, and this alone gives opposition figures a quasi-legal pretext for declaring the elections illegitimate.

We should also be cautious about assuming that the Shiites and Kurds will retain a unified front now that the election is over-- if anything, post-election squabbles may make that unity unravel. The spoils will now have to be divided, and there will be big winners and tremendous losers when the divvying-up is done. The Kurds have demanded a level of autonomy that falls just short of independence, and Ayatollah Sistani has declared before that he would never countenance the sort of decentralization and veto power that the Kurds have demanded. That alone is a major flashpoint that has nothing whatsoever to do with the Sunni Arabs, and may indeed engender a precarious relationship and increasing insurgency that will make the current travails seem like a vacation in comparison. Also, Shiites themselves are hardly a monolithic block. Again, there will be some winners after January, and some major losers as well, and the losers have an easy out by claiming (based e.g. on low turnout in many areas, and violence, and obvious disruption of many polls) that the elections didn't reflect the will of the people. So then, voila, now you've got Shiite factions potentially duking it out with each other.

Frankly, most of the embarrasingly fulsome rah-rahing (on the part of Dan Rather, the NYT, and many other major news sources) is based on most-likely unrepresentative results from a few polling places in Kurdistan and southern Iraq that were never guerrilla hotbeds to begin with. Many reports suggested that polling places in Baghdad, Mosul, Ramadi, and other places were essentially little more than lawn decoration. Boycott or not, that's the sort of thing that in almost all cases, has historically cast an election as fundamentally illegitimate. There are even some doubts now about the (already lowered) turnout figures announced recently.

The new Iraqi Parliament may be able to at least partially soothe some Sunni Arab resentment by appointing some of its members to high posts, but it's unclear that this'll do anything to alleviate their most severe grievances, or give them a sense of loyalty to Iraq. We too often forget that Iraq is an artificial country, created out of several hostile ethnic factions by the British bureaucrat Sir Percy Cox so that the Brits (alongside the French in Syria) would have easier access to Mesopotamian oil. To a substantial degree, the Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen within that nation have never accepted its existence; tribal, ethnic, and religious ties are far more important to them, and with the decentralization of power that has already de facto occurred, it will be virtually impossible for a central government that's seen as too closely identifying with one ethnicity or another to impose its power on a large, rebellious region. The Sunnis, especially, are armed to the teeth. It's the NRA's ultimate dreamland in some ways-- private citizens who, together, are so heavily armed that they have more firepower than most national armies.

I'd hope that the Sunnis could be coaxed into the government somehow, that the Kurds could be persuaded to step back a bit from their demands (although could anybody blame them, considering the way they've been screwed by major powers before?), that the Shiites will at the very least not be too demanding about Kurdish concerns. But a country comprised of three mutually hostile and distrustful ethnic groups is never a solid basis for a durable democracy-- de Tocqueville, among others, recognized as much. There will have to be some major horsetrading on all sides, some major concessions, and some major federalism, and then *maybe* a unified Iraq stands a modest chance of holding together. But I wouldn't bet the farm or stable on it.

Posted by: Wes Ulm | Jan 30, 2005 9:51:34 PM

And, more generally on Matthew's post, I find it notable that Matthew COMPLETELY IGNORES the geo-strategic justification for the war: that establishing a democracy in the heart of the middle east is intended to change the conditions underlying the Islamofascism that breeds Islamic terrorism. Matthew addresses the "WMD + al Qaeda" (and, the Duelfer report, IMO, completely justifies the war all by itself). And Matthew addresses the "humanitarian" reason: getting rid of the most oppressive regime on the face of the earth (perhaps save North Korea). But why does he ignore the geo-strategic reason? Because Matthew knows that THAT is the real reason that completely justifies everything that Bush has done and (so far) completely discredits Matthew and the rest of the anti-war whiners.

There is a reason that Bush chose to invade Iraq rather than Burma, Matthew. Yeah, it would be "humanitarian" to eliminate the junta in Burma and replace it with a democracy. But it would not do anything to advance the cause against terrorism.

Posted by: Al | Jan 30, 2005 9:59:39 PM

Actually, Sistani originally wanted elections in May 2004, which would have been quite feasible. Also the elections would have been more succesful then, since the insurgency was not as deeply rooted as it is now. In fact, if we had just come out right after the fall of Baghdad and announced that elections would be held by the U.N. in one year, there probably wouldn't even be an insurgency...

Posted by: RC | Jan 30, 2005 10:01:25 PM

Afghanistan has roughly nil impact on US polls. Eyes on the prize, and it ain't Afghan freedom.

Posted by: John Isbell | Jan 30, 2005 10:04:11 PM

(And, frankly, these elections are hardly "historic" for the Middle East-- as Juan Cole has noted, Iran in 1997 and Bahrain in 2002 have also held elections which, though they had their own major flaws, were arguably comparable to what took place in Iraq today.)

Can I reiterate that Juan Cole is an absolute idiot? Because, really, that cannot be said often enough.

Nobody in Iran was voting for the the mullahs. And nobody in Bahrain was voting for King.

What a fool.

Posted by: Al | Jan 30, 2005 10:08:38 PM

Actually, Sistani originally wanted elections in May 2004, which would have been quite feasible.

Where do you get that? Anybody can pull a random date out of their &ss and say, without any basis whatsoever, that "yeah, SURE they're feasible by then." That doesn't make it true.

On the other hand, I've got certified election experts from the UN that say that January 2005 was the earliest it was possible to hold them.

Posted by: Al | Jan 30, 2005 10:12:41 PM

Instead we'll see a broad coalition of all the major factional elites trying to establish a pluralistic, but non-democratic regime capable of combatting the insurgency. Something roughly akin to what you see in Lebanon.

You mean, what you used to see in Lebanon up til the PLO moved in in the 1970s and ruined the place, ultimately reducing it to a Syrian satrapy. The analogy I prefer is Turkey: a queasily democratic republic with military strongmen and fundamentalists lurking in the background.

Posted by: The Sanity Inspector | Jan 30, 2005 10:26:30 PM

When you can have elections depends on when you start to prepare for them. The UN pronouncements you refer to were made by Lakhdar Brahimni
sometime in the middle of 2004, IIRC. In any case, these elections were only agreed to one year ago. That would lead one to the conclusion that it took six months to a year to prepare for elections. Plenty of time to hold election in June 2004, if you started preparations early enough.
Also remember the voter rolls were prepared on the basis of UN food ration cards. The whole reason why the Bush administration was originally claiming that elections weren't feasable was because they argued that there needed to be a census first. But that proved not to be the case.

And the Duelfer report justified the war? I know that was the conservative spin... but the report actually said was that far from being an iminent threat, Saddam's WMD capabilities were WEAKENING at the time of the war, because the sanctions against him had become dramatically more effective in the wake of 9/11.

Posted by: RC | Jan 30, 2005 10:35:02 PM

When the leftist critics of these elections die and go to heaven, and walk down the streets of the Golden City, they'll probably complain about how yellow everything looks.

Guys, just because your side had absolutely bubkis to do with any positive development in the world, post 9/11, doesn't mean you can't whole-heartedly rejoice in these people's liberation.

Posted by: The Sanity Inspector | Jan 30, 2005 10:44:51 PM

"as Juan Cole has noted, Iran in 1997 and Bahrain in 2002 have also held elections which, though they had their own major flaws, were arguably comparable to what took place in Iraq today."

Yikes. Please don't provide a cite for that. I think Juan Cole is a bit of a tool from time to time, but I would like to pretend that he didn't saying anything that amazingly stupid. He's supposed to be a Middle East expert right?

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | Jan 30, 2005 10:55:41 PM

"The money and manpower we've deployed in Iraq could have been used to bring about regime change in Burma or to provide clean drinking waters to millions of people or to halt genocide in Darfur or to block the Iranian nuclear program or any number of other things."

This is true, and maybe if I had known in advance that I could get more bang for my buck by toppling the Burmese regime, then I would support that too. But do you really expect anyone to possess that level of clairvoyance? And is politics really a matter of simple utilitarian logic, unrelated to historical context? Furthermore, if we followed this utilitarian calculus precisely, would anyone on the left support the efficient toppling of the Burmese despotism? I doubt it. We'd be hearing that it's imperialistic to fight brutal dictatorships.

Posted by: Jonathan Dworkin | Jan 30, 2005 11:13:49 PM

"Speaking reality-based, war proponents have been thoroughly discredited ever since the national security case (WMD plus al-Qaeda ties) fell apart a long, long time ago. Anyone who actually proposed an undertaking on this scale for purely humanitarian purposes would be laughed out of the room, and rightly so."

Why, and again, why? The Hussein regime was in defiance of UN weapons sanctions. Many major western spy agencies believed it had WMDs. In fact, it had used WMDs on the Iranians and Kurds. That being the case, why does it discredit anyone for believing that maybe they had WMDs?

And why is the humanitarian case ever to be laughed at? As liberals shouldn't we demand that humanitarian concerns be elevated to the top of the political debate. A regime that invaded two neighboring countries, leading to millions of deaths, and that murdered hundreds of thousands of its own people through genocide, should certainly be held accountable to humanitarian arguments.

Then there's the prosecution of critical thought as a political crime, and all the other aspects of tyranny that smothered culture and made communal life a desperate competition to please the leader.

No, I'm sorry, the humanitarian argument is not to be easily laughed at.

Posted by: Jonathan Dworkin | Jan 30, 2005 11:21:50 PM

"would anyone on the left support the efficient toppling of the Burmese despotism? I doubt it."

The X-Men live and read the minds of 150 million US citizens. Here's my list: Syria, Burma, Congo, Saudi, yes. Iran, North Korea, no. I'm on the left. Pakistan, no.
In short, doubt unwarranted, natch.

Posted by: John Isbell | Jan 30, 2005 11:51:31 PM

It strikes me that there is a lot of jumping the gun by both the left and the right today, with many bold attempts to say what the election does or does not "mean", before we have any way of knowing whether or not the election has even been successfully carried off.

Isn't anybody disconcerted by the lack of solid information out of Iraq? I've seen a few pictures of some smiling voters in Baghdad and Basra. But at this point, it appear to me, we have absolutely no idea how many people voted. Absolutely. None. There were some lame early attempts by the Iraqi government to spin a high turnout, and declare the triumph of democracy, but they backed off of that pretty quickly and admitted they were just bullshitting. They have no idea. The spinners are still at work, but I haven't seen much solid reporting.

There is hardly any international monitoring of this election to speak of. Because the security in Iraq is so bad, the election is being "monitored" from outside Iraq, in Jordan, and from inside the Green Zone. And as in the past, there is very little media monitoring, because the media can't get where they need to go because of the security situation. The teams of election officials manning the polls have suffered significant defections and resignations in recent weeks, as many were simply too afraid to do their jobs One can only guess at the levels of training and honesty present in these officials. One also wonders how they were all hired. Whose brothers-in-law are they?

The cast ballots now have to make their way by truck from all over Iraq to the Green Zone to be counted. It is a two-week process with plenty of opportunity for disruption and fraud along the way. But in two weeks time, it is entirely possible that this election might have collapsed into histoy's ash can under a barrage of charges and counter-charges over corruption, fraud and logistical failings. Or maybe not - only time will tell. But do you think the average Iraqi, accustomed as he is to rigged elections, is going to have any confidence at all the the official totals in this election match the actual votes cast? A real election requires a secure, reliable and generally trusted electoral infrastructure, so that there is some reasonable assurance that the votes that are cast manage to find their way into the official counts. None of those things are present in Iraq.

I saw a picture of some of the "ballot boxes". They looked like those tupperware file folder containers you can buy in Staples. Can we have any confidence that a significant percentage of these won't end up in a dumpster somewhere, to be replaced by some pre-prepared boxes? ral is on hand to see in most of the polling places. The foxes are really guarding the henhouse here.

You would think Americans, who have experienced plenty of election irregularities and fraud in our own country, a country that at least possesses a functioning security system, and has media all over the country on election day, would have just a tiny bit more skepticism about the integrity of an election held under military occupation, and in such deplorable circumstances.

The only thing that did receive clear confirmation today is the stupefying incompetence, gullibility and lack of professionalism of the American televised media. The giddy fools spent the day making up for the lack of genuine reporting with a succession of worthless talking head shows, and unabashed cheerleading.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Jan 31, 2005 12:02:04 AM

Oh, and why do I get the feeling that we won't be hearing the left whine about torture anymore, seeing as how every single reported act is now COMPLETELY JUSTIFIED. Everyone who claimed to be upset about the "torture" has been exposed for who they really are, people who were just obsessed with seeing America defeated by any means necessary.

Posted by: Al | Jan 31, 2005 12:10:52 AM

The cheerleading is the danger for the White House. After such a triumph, bring the boys home. Q.E.D. "Peoria" will resent every subsequent day, increasingly. "Mission Accomplished" did a bit of this, if you remember.

Posted by: John Isbell | Jan 31, 2005 12:11:51 AM

WTF weird comment from AL I won't even try to fathom. Maybe he's sleep-posting. Or maybe AL is computer-generated.

Posted by: John Isbell | Jan 31, 2005 12:13:15 AM

Oh, and why do I get the feeling that we won't be hearing the left whine about torture anymore, seeing as how every single reported act is now COMPLETELY JUSTIFIED. Everyone who claimed to be upset about the "torture" has been exposed for who they really are, people who were just obsessed with seeing America defeated by any means necessary.

Al, that is without a doubt the stupidest thing I have heard you say, ever.

I hope it was the stalker Al.

The simple fact of the matter is this: we have no idea, yet, if today was a historic event. It's a good sign that Iraqis were willing to risk life and limb to go vote (of course, what exactly was the turn-out: answer: we don't know. The numbers we have so far are right out of the ass).

But, there is a hell of a lot more to do before Iraq has an actual democracy, which is why I have been perpetually annoyed by the detached-from-reality right (who are desperate for any good news they can get in their Presidents amazing bumblings), and the cheerleading press corps. What happens if it turns out Sunnis didn't vote? What happens if it turns out that the Iraqis can't come to agreement on government? What happens if there is never a peaceful transfer of power (the actual test of democracy). What happens if the Iraqis come to a complete disagreement with the American embassy? What happens if instituting Sharia law becomes popular? What happens if Iraq decides Iran is their best friend?

And the million dollar question: what if this does nothing to thwart the rebellion (and lack of ability to muster an Iraqi army)?

There is room for guarded optimism here -- but nothing more. Considering the ignorant buffoons that got us to this point are still in charge of American policy in Iraq, there's plenty of reason to be very guarded. We don't know if things are going to get worse: let's hope they don't.

But you're a goddamn idiot if you buy the bullshit line that this is "an historic" occasion or that things are going to necessarily get better. We don't know, and there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical.

Posted by: Timothy Klein | Jan 31, 2005 1:04:46 AM

Did Al just say that "every single reported act [of torture] is now COMPLETELY JUSTIFIED."? Hmmm, and you wonder why some of us are a wee bit skeptical of the new-found humanitarianism on the Right.

Posted by: Elrod | Jan 31, 2005 1:12:33 AM

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