Happy days are here again. Or so say William Kristol and Robert Kagan, the co-helmsmen of America's neoconservative establishment. In their upbeat Weekly Standard assessment of the Dec. 15 Iraq parliamentary elections, they ridicule "sour experts" whom they assert are going far out of their way to explain why "the peaceful election of a national assembly for a fully self-governing Arab democracy was not a turning point." But the election, according to Kristol and Kaplan, was no less than an "eruption of democracy in the heart of the Arab world."
Meanwhile, another neoconservative fellow traveler, Lawrence Kaplan, writes in The New Republic that while Americans have an understandable affliction of "milestone fatigue" after all previous celebrated "turning points"--ranging from the capture of Saddam Hussein to last October's constitutional referendum--failed to trigger a stabilizing cycle in Iraq, Dec. 15 "really was a milestone." In an assessment echoing Francis Fukuyama's yesteryear notion on the "end of history," Kaplan confidently writes that "however torturous the path to Iraqi democracy may have been...for America at least, the path ended" on the day of Iraq's elections.
Their collective euphoria filtered up into President George W. Bush's speech on Iraq this week. Although the election would "not mean the end to violence," it was "a landmark day in the history of liberty" which would establish "constitutional democracy at the heart of the Middle East."
Iraq may indeed end up surprising all those who doubt that democracy is an export commodity. And Kristol, Kagan and Kaplan-- as well as Bush--may prove to be correct. Still, their respective interpretations seem more sentimental than logical--not to mention self-serving.
At the same time, critics of the invasion and occupation of Iraq are predisposed to discount the positive possibilities that may arise from the election and instead conjure historical metaphors like South Vietnam's acclaimed high-turnout 1967 elections that did nothing to forestall the fall of Saigon. These critics argue that Iraq's state building project is cosmetic and while electoral turnout, even among the Sunni population, may be high, as soon as U.S. pressure disappears, Iraq will cease worrying about its image and will dismantle the government in favor of three independent states. If this division is not managed in an orderly manner, the most mentioned scenario is anarchy and civil war.
What is missing in the general interpretation of events in Iraq is a dispassionate depiction of what is going on and analysis of what it means. In a recent New Yorker profile of Gen. Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first Bush president, George H. W. Bush complimented his adviser and indicted his son's administration by stating that Scowcroft "was very good about making sure that we did not simply consider the 'best case', but instead considered what it would mean if things went our way, and also if they did not."
The same logic should apply to assessing the key components of this election. Let's take stock of what we empirically know or should consider, rather than are ideologically disposed to believe.
First, voter turnout among eligible voters was about 70 per cent compared to 58 per cent in the October referendum. Given the harassment of and threats to candidates, polling stations, and voters from insurgents and terrorists, this is an attention-grabbing figure. Getting the Sunnis to the polls was considered by most to be essential, and this was achieved.
But beneath this big number are some unpleasant realities.
For one thing, religious authorities issued a fatwa, an edict, which instructed worshippers that it was their religious duty to vote. Clearly, this is soft coercion of voters rather than a strong buy-in to democratic process.
In addition, a report emerged just before the election that the Shiite-controlled Iraqi Ministry of Interior had tortured and beaten more than 120 Sunni detainees and the intensity of abuse and torture was far greater than previously reported, and the number of victims far higher than first admitted. In fact, some have argued that the incumbent government has been engaged in systematic harassment, kidnapping, torture, and murder of Sunnis for political reasons. So, part of the motivation driving a high Sunni turnout is fear that continued Shiite dominance of the political order will result in more abuse and disappearances.
Getting people to the polls does matter, but it seems that the reasons that drive people to vote are also important in analyzing their success. Fear seems to be a significant if not just as important an explanation of Iraqi citizens' election behavior as hope for and belief in democracy.
Whereas neocons suggest Iraq's appetite for self-determination will lead to a confidence in democratic institutions that will protect people's basic rights, less sentimental observers suggest that if a predilection for electoral participation is growing, such voting participation is directed solely at securing power.
"Democracy" as such feels uncomfortable and is disliked by many Iraqis despite a high degree of participation. The problematic reality that few Iraq election cheerleaders acknowledge is that most Iraqis who voted don't believe that politics is the best and most important "solution" to their problems. They feel that violence remains the more pragmatic way to achieve justice and to protect one's interests.
Another bit of hidden turbulence beneath these elections is the failure of Iraq's emerging national leaders to declare that they will respect the outcome and political realities of electoral results.
For instance, the powerful Bader Organization has already asserted that if either the Sunnis or the secular Shiites, headed by Interim Prime Minister and former CIA asset Ayad Allawi, undermine the United Iraqi Alliance (an alliance of religious Shiite political parties), then they "will take up arms." Likewise, Sunni elements have threatened violence and a return to a political disengagement campaign unless there is less de-Baathification crusades by the Kurdish and Shiite political order.
The Kristol-Kagan-Kaplan school of thought seems unconcerned with the fact that one election does not a democracy make. Richard Haass, a former head of the Bush administration's policy planning staff at the State Department, warns that the White House is creating ballotocracies, not real democracies. A system of checks and balances, protections for minority rights, an independent judiciary and a genuinely free and respected media are only the beginning parts of establishing a resilient democracy, he suggests. And this may take decades.
Framing an election as a success to score political points will only blur the U.S. ability to see what is really unfolding in Iraq. Influential writers and pundits who engage in lop-sided analyses of the coalition's role in Iraq are doing a disservice to all sides in the debate and need to get back to doing what Scowcroft did: put all the views, not just the best case, on the table and plan a course from there.
Last week's elections may prove to be a turning point in Iraq. But if an honest accounting is applied to date, the situation looks far bleaker than neocons want to reveal.