Monday, February 02, 2009

What The Hell Just Happened In Iraq? (Andrew Sullivan)

As a follow-up to the provincial elections in Iraq this past weekend, Andrew Sullivan has pulled together a useful round-up of immediate (American) responses from across the ideological spectrum. They can't all be right, and it will take a while to assess which turn out to be most on-target, but all of the ones he picked are fairly intelligent, more or less plausible, and worth reading. What Andrew Sullivan himself says about the elections and their significance sounds right to me, too.

Hoping for the best,
Jeff Weintraub

Andrew Sullivan (The Daily Dish)
February 2, 2009
What The Hell Just Happened In Iraq?

It's very hard not to be cheered by the provincial elections over the weekend. Yes, the Sunni vote still seems somewhat depressed, and this could lead to trouble down the line, especially in Anbar; yes, the entire country was in virtual lockdown just to secure a basic turnout; yes, the voter rolls are still apparently more than a little random; and we've learned by now to interpret events in Iraq without succumbing to total pessimism or triumphalism.

But the mere fact of the elections - that they occurred peacefully in an Arab Muslim country and that they suggest a real mechanism for the expression of popular political will: this is an achievement of which Iraq and the US military can be proud, and which, frankly, I did not dare expect. The news that the Awakening parties did very well in Anbar is very encouraging in the eternal fight against al Qaeda. I'm still trying to figure out the details, but here's some early expert reaction from across the political spectrum.

Juan Cole:
The big news out of the leaks from Iraq's vote counters is that parties seeking a strong central government appear to have won big in the elections for provincial governments. There had been a split last fall. Some parties, such as the Kurdistan Alliance and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, wanted Iraq to have a very weak central government, which would cede a great deal of Federal power to provincial confederacies such as the Kurdistan Regional Government. In contrast, the centralizers in the Da'wa (Islamic Mission Party) and among the Sunni Arabs, want a strong central state. It is the latter that appear to be coming out on top...
[JW: That assessment may pvove to be correct--it's what Juan Cole has been hoping for, but that doesn't necessarily make it just wishful thinking--and, if so, that outcome could indeed by politically significant. We'll have to see.]

Max Boot:
The claims made by so many analysts not long ago that the U.S. war in Iraq was a huge win for Iran are not holding up. Likewise for the claims that an outside power could not possibly create a democracy in the Middle East. While Iraq’s democracy remains fragile and imperfect, it is nevertheless impressive to see its people not only casting votes but apparently selecting fairly centrist, secular candidates who are, by all indications, committed to an alliance with the U.S.
Walid Phares:
These elections will produce a new majority in Iraq, which will be always determined by coalition building. However, one result cannot be reversed anymore; no more return to single party dictatorship. Iraq may break in pieces, but it will never return to a Saddam-like monstrosity; and that is what authoritarians in contiguous countries fear the most.

The seeds of elections are now planted in Mesopotamia. With more than 140 political party and associations, hundreds of newspapers, publications, dozens of radio and TV stations — a mosaic is in existence. It will be hard on the Iranian Mullahs and on Al Qaeda to crush all this diversity across the Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and Christian lines. Once young Iraqis who will be voting for the first time, women who have broken the walls of gender exclusiveness, and minorities emerging from the underground, have tasted and tested this democratic exercise — a resistance to fascism and totalitarianism is born.
Spencer Ackerman:
Beyond the elections themselves loom the question of how the provincial institutions will adapt to new electoral realities. I have no evidence for the following proposition and it's pure supposition, but here goes: electoral pivot points in weak states can create new and competiting institutions rather than the transition of control over existing institutions.
[JW: In terms of what Ackerman seems to be suggesting about the significance of these elections, and of how they allegedly exemplify some larger role of "electoral pivot points," his analysis doesn't really make sense. But his cautionary point about where Iraq might go from here is well taken.]