Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What Iraqi Democracy Looks Like

*Update Appended, 7/16 @ 1100*

As I've said before, the only (publicly stated) rationale for the invasion of Iraq still on the table is the drive to establish a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, if only because its the only one not definitively disprovable by facts. (Wherever tangible reality meets the Bush worldview, the latter is brutally swept aside.) That said, there has been scant discussion of the probable outcome of the exercise in Iraqi democracy.

John McCain has made a living out of saying the US must stay in Iraq until 'victory' occurs, though a definition of victory seems perpetually elusive for him. Now Obama, in his desire to slink his way ever closer to McCain in the foreign policy arena has declared that victory is imminent. Yet, like McCain, Obama's vision of victory is founded on a set of circumstances clearly contradicted by facts on the ground (forgive the cliche).

For Mr. Obama, that status quo is close to what he is now calling "victory." In his speech yesterday, he said, "True success will take place when we leave Iraq to a government that is taking responsibility for its future — a government that prevents sectarian conflict, and ensures that the Al Qaeda threat which has been beaten back by our troops does not reemerge. That is an achievable goal if we pursue a comprehensive plan to press the Iraqis to stand up."

Suggesting that a democratic exercise in Iraq would "prevent sectarian conflict" is not a goal to be taken lightly, as the power struggles surrounding elections exacerbate sectarian tensions as much as they quell them. Whereas McCain offers the promise of victory without definition, Obama counters with a vision of success fatally wedded to circumstances not likely to appear.

I've alluded to the tenuous state of the upcoming provincial elections in previous posts, indicating that much of Maliki's recent pushes in Basra, Sadr City and elsewhere have been thinly-veiled power plays meant to affect the results of those elections. Marc Lynch examines other aspects in more detail here:

It appears that the long-anticipated Iraqi Parliament vote on a law governing the provincial elections scheduled for the beginning of October has been postponed until Thursday and probably longer. Parliamentary Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani postponed discussions after the Kurds walked out in protest over the treatment of Kirkuk; leaders from the Shia UIA were reportedly huddling with their Kurdish partners in the governing coalition, trying to reach an agreement on how to proceed.

This isn't a great shock: the government had submitted a multiple-choice draft for the Parliament to debate, leaving the most contentious issues unresolved. It didn't seem likely that the divided and contentious Parliament would quickly arrive at a consensus which eluded Maliki's relatively tight ruling Shia-Kurd coalition....

The issues raised by the provincial election law cut to the heart of competing visions of Iraq's political future. Kurds are fuming over the plans for voting in Kirkuk, which they feel might prejudice the future of the contested area (the three official Kurdish provinces will almost certainly not take part at all in the provincial elections). The question of open vs closed lists may seem technocratic, but will have major implications for voting: many people think that (for better or worse) closed lists strengthen the role of parties at the expense of individual candidates and could heighten the salience of sectarian appeals.

Clearly, more than a few issues, with many of the contentious issues promising to stoke sectarian strife rather than soften the blow, as Obama hopes. As it stands, Iraq is not a centralized government, but a collection of different concentrations of power, a situation not likely to change as a result of the elections. Part of that relationship is the status of Kirkuk, a city which the Kurds feel should be part of their semi-autonomous region, making the prospect of holding elections there a "thorny subject."

Likewise, the use of closed lists, where voters are only given a choice of parties rather than individual candidates, will almost by definition promote sectarian divides. The Sadrists are also barred from participating as a party, leaving them out completely should closed lists be used, and one can imagine that would have some effect on the Mahdi Army cease fire, which has no small bearing on the so-called "success" of the Surge.

Also receiving little attention is the status of the 5 million displaced Iraqis, victims of the years of ethnic cleansing. Unless the election law allows them to vote in their previous areas of residence, the elections would be a de facto codification of that cleansing. Eric Martin, remarking on Lynch's piece, expresses his pessimistic outlook:

The reason for time's inadequacy as a facilitator of resolution stems from the stubbornness of the convoluted and cross-cutting matrix of conflicts that continue to plague Iraq: various groups of Iraqis are battling to determine the political future of their country (unitary state vs. fragmented state, Islamist vs. secular, etc.), to dictate their roles in it (various ethnic/sectarian groups vying for safety, survival, economic and political power) to determine the level of foreign occupation/involvement (American, Iranian, etc.) and to redress crimes and injustices both recent (5 million internal/external refugees, hundreds of thousands dead, etc.) and historical (Shiite/Kurdish suffering at the hands of Saddam). How does more time to discuss the various positions/demands undo that? The answer is, generally, it doesn't.

If that wasn't problem enough, Saddam's VP made an appearance today, taunting not only Bush, but Muqtada al Sadr and al Qaeda, throwing yet another obstacle in the way of the administration's attempts to paint Iraqi resistance as a homogeneous bloc. The taunts also further exemplify the probability that the provincial elections portend of a powder keg of sectarian tensions.

That, essentially, is what Obama is trying to gloss over in saying success is close at hand, and it's surely an aspect of the Iraqi reality that needs more attention paid to it. Obama sees a future with a less-than-perfect democracy, but he ties that to the supposition that any democracy will temper internal conflict. All available evidence, however, points to precisely the opposite conclusion, a reality that should force Obama to explain just how he plans to avoid it.

Empty platitudes pervade American political discourse, sure, but on issues as significant as the Iraqi elections, the public deserves much more. The last 5 years has been an exercise in trading actual understanding of reality for a strong gale of hollow rhetoric, and if the overwhelming success of that tactic doesn't call for a change of course, nothing will. While Obama's definition of 'success' may be short on specifics, at least he deigns to make an attempt. Thus far, McCain has yet to offer even a token milestone for his goal of 'victory.'


The fighting has begun to materialize, with Kurdish lawmakers protesting on Tuesday. There is virtually no chance of the election happening before the Presidential elections in November, but how much that affects the American enterprise I'm not sure.


The Myth of the Surge, March 27
Changing the Rules of the Game, April 1

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