Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Monday Morning Quarterback

As expected, Sunday January 30th was a historic day. In the run-up to the Iraqi election, I commented on several liberal blogs, with the sincere hope for some enthusiasm or at least anticipation for the elections, and maybe even some guarded optimism. I was naïve, perhaps, in believing that all anti-war liberals could put aside their hatred for Bush and his policies for just one day and recognize the critical importance of the Iraqi experiment with democracy. But I was not entirely disappointed. My colleague on this site, J.S., was against the war from the very beginning for solid reasons, and supported the elections as a monumental victory over the terrorist insurgents, all the while maintaining his entirely consistent position that we could have accomplished our goals in other ways. He also did something that almost no one else in the blogosphere ever does: He entertained the possibility that events and evidence may eventually convince him that he was wrong in his opposition to the war. (We’re not there by a long shot) I participated in the same intellectual exercise myself. Even though I supported the idea of building a democracy in Iraq from the beginning, what would it take for me to realize that I was wrong all along? (We’re not there yet, either) If we cannot imagine a situation where we are proven wrong, we persist in our rigid ideological ways regardless of the mounting evidence against us, which results in institutions like the Communist Party and Fox News.

So, how did the election go? To be fair to the critics and the proponents, we won’t know the true impact of the election for a few months now, when the votes will be tallied, the new constitution is drafted, and political deal-making between Sistani, Allawi, the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Americans commences. At best, this election was a first step in the right direction. At worst, it was a pyrrhic victory, allowing for only a brief respite in the violence, but not impacting the trajectory of the insurgency in any real way.

How did Election Day stack up to predictions? Many of the liberal sites I visit regularly were predicting outright disaster, with continued violence and abysmally low levels of Sunni participation. Simply put, they were wrong. Perhaps when the inevitable terrorist attacks commence, this crowd can proudly crow, “I told you so!,” but for now they will probably ruefully claim that the election was fixed or that whoever wins is a U.S. puppet, or choose another item from their laundry list of complaints about American foreign policy (many of which are sometimes legitimate in Iraq and other cases). The Democratic Party in general, which struggled with the war issue from the beginning, needs to finally confront the internal dynamics of their own base, and decide whether or not they will let an isolationist/realist left that is skeptical of American power dominate the party or whether a new foreign policy identity will be developed. Either would be preferable to the current state of affairs, which results in mixed messages and a weak persona.

For war supporters, the election mirrored the Afghani elections in that all reasonable expectations were surpassed and Bush’s vision appeared to have been validated once again. This inspiring story in the NYT of one Iraqi who lost his life voting on Sunday (there were more than 50), made me think of how this election made martyrs out of true heroes, perhaps finally recapturing the word for generations of Muslims. I also thought of how the story would be received in other Middle Eastern countries, along with the recent Palestinian elections (and positive signs from both sides). Will leaders in the region still be able to convince their people that the U.S. and Israel are the entire problem, when those two countries are involved in the two most significant democratic initiatives in recent memory? How long before people all across the region start to examine their political systems and leaders, and demand the same rights that Iraqis have?

But it’s not so simple. As an idealistic believer in a democratic Middle East, I admit that I was caught up in the powerful images coming from Iraq, the bravery of those who voted, and the tangible results of the policy I supported strongly. But I needed to stop myself and realize that one election does not make a democracy and the same problems present on January 29th still exist today. How will Sunnis react to their limited role in the new parliament? (After all, their turnout was still very low and thousands of Iraqis couldn’t vote at all) Will Shiites have any incentives to reach out to them? Will divisions arise between the two Kurdish parties who teamed up for political purposes during the election? Finally, what impact will this election really have on other Middle East regimes? (A big question when looking at the cost/benefit analysis of this war from my perspective)

Thus, I encourage war supporters not to believe their own hubris. The election did go well, given the low expectations, and the belief that all people of the world can participate in democracy was validated. But the mission is far from over, and as the U.S. hopefully moves from occupier to a support role, difficult questions about Iraq’s future will be in Iraqi hands, with results perhaps not to our liking. The experiment has passed a critical first stage, but now is not the time for overconfidence. Rather, its time to let nations like France and Germany back into the fold to provide valuable assistance and continue to persuade the rest of the world that a democratic Iraq is in all of our interests.

So what happened on Sunday? Choose your biased media outlet and subscribe to the “frame” of your choice. Neither side can probably agree on its significance or its impact on the future. That’s entirely appropriate because no one really knows.

R.C.

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