The Iraqi elections offer me a little cause for hope. More than anything else I want to see Iraq become a modern secular state. Electing a government, even one with questionable legitimacy, is an important step toward that goal. Iraq’s religious and ethnic conflicts can only be resolved by Iraqis. Foreign occupiers won’t do. At best the occupiers can define the process toward building a national polity but outsiders will not be able to broker interests, disputes and long held grudges in a culture that is not their own. Only Iraqis themselves can do this. After 80 years of Sunni Arab dominance culminating in three decades of Saddam Hussein’s murderous megalomania, Iraqis have much anger, fear, bitterness and hatred to overcome.
All that notwithstanding, elections offer the small hope that Iraqis will be able to overcome this tragic legacy and build a new polity. At a minimum, an elected government will have a level of credibility that the interim government, appointed by occupation authorities, does not. That weak mantle may offer sufficient leverage for reaching out to the Sunni resistance to begin working out the accommodations that will allow all Iraqis, whatever their tribal or religious affiliation, to live together in peace and security. If the new government can restore basic services and establish civil order, it may well have the opening necessary to make the needed reconciliation.
The Washington Post reports that Iraqis are eager to participate in the elections. After 50 years of dictatorship, that’s not surprising. Only their fear of the increasing violence and resentment at foreign occupation forces limits their eagerness. The Post article describes efforts by American funded groups to assist parties and individuals in learning how to organize and campaign. Interest is high, even to the point of attending a seminar despite a suicide bomb attack on the location. These efforts, which have trained representatives from all the parties and many individuals participating in the elections, may be the United States’ most significant contribution to Iraq. The ideas and skills learned and tested in this election are a resource that can be employed again and again as Iraqis give birth to their new government. That is cause for some hope.
Any positive results from this exercise in nation building will depend on Iraqi leaders’ ability to deal honestly and sensitively (Note to Dick Cheney: Here’s that word again. I use it because it represents a key skill in resolving differences. You should try it some time.) with the many grievances and hatreds arising from Iraq’s bloody, repressive history. Elections, even if successful, only change the venue for this needed process from a “puppet” regime to one representing many, but not all, Iraqis. The issues remain the same and will require great courage and skill to overcome. No foreign occupier, no electoral process can provide that courage and skill. It must come from the Iraqi people and their leaders.
That is a much more difficult task. Iraqi history since its liberation from the Ottoman Empire does not offer many examples of conciliation and consensus. Most disputes have been “resolved” at the point of a gun. Nor do the prejudiced views of some Sunnis provide much hope for progress. (To them, the prospect of a Shi’ite dominated government must seem as frightening as Reconstruction governments did to the defeated Confederates after the American own civil war.) On the other hand, Iraqi bloggers have often noted that individually Iraqis do coexist, even intermarrying among the various ethnic groups. Usually, individuals are much better at reaching out to each other than are their leaders. Perhaps individual Iraqis, each acting in their own lives, can in combination with an elected government begin the reconciliation that will bring peace and stability to their homeland. I hope so.
This, of course, is what most Americans hoped would result from our invasion. Americans did not, however, expect that the process would take so long, cost so much or wreak so much death and destruction on Iraq. I like to think that, had Americans known the costs, we would have demanded that our government look for better alternatives. I like to think that. But instead Americans acquiesced to the distortions perpetrated by BushCheney and marched into war without giving the decision much real thought. Now, after two years, the best America can offer Iraq is a questionable election that has little prospect for resolving its conflicts.
Update: As noted above, training Iraqis in election skills may add a dynamic to Iraqi politics. Juan Cole a also sees a similar result at the macro level.
“...There are, of course, lots of elections in the Arab world. Some are more rigged than others. But there are almost no elections where the sitting prime minister and his party would be allowed to be turned out unexpectedly by an unpredictable and uncontrolled electorate. If Iraqi interim Prime Minister Allawi's list does poorly and his political star falls as a result of a popular vote, something democratic will have happened in Iraq, for all the serious problems with the elections."