Monday, March 08, 2010

What happened in the March 2010 Iraqi elections?

I don't always agree with the Middle East analyst Marc Lynch, but his day-after assessment of Iraqi elections strikes me as on-target.
Iraq's election day went off remarkably well. Despite some scattered and tragic violence, there was nothing like the kind of devastating violence threatened by a few insurgent groups and only scattered reports of problems in the electoral process. The de-Baathification shenanigans of Chalabi and al-Lami did some long-lasting damage to the credibility of state institutions and the rule of law, but not enough to cripple the elections. The relatively calm election day was overseen, it's worth emphasizing, by Iraqi security forces and not by U.S. troops -- something which I was often informed, over the last year, couldn't possibly happen. It did. This is simply excellent news, and a credit to the emerging capability of the Iraqi state.
When it comes to foreseeing the consequences of these elections, things are more uncertain:
So now that election day is past, what now?

First, don't rush to speculate on who won or what it means. All the Iraqi lists are loudly claiming victory, but the truth is that no official (or even unofficial) results yet seem to exist. The anecdotal evidence still points to the pre-election speculation -- Maliki on top, Allawi a strong second, the ISCI/Sadrist Shi'a list fading -- but it's only anecdotal. It does make a difference who comes out on top, and who becomes Prime Minister - Maliki and Allawi, for instance, would have very different styles, as would Chalabi or some such. But at the same time, there's almost certainly going to be a coalition of some kind (fully inclusive or otherwise) and the differences probably won't be as stark as some people expect.

Everybody has been predicting that the post-election coalition maneuvering will be long and painful, and could create the kind of security and political vaccuum which caused so many problems in the first half of 2006. I suspect that this is wrong. Iraqis learned from that experience, and they've been spending the last half-year gaming out coalition scenarios. I think that we'll see some intense political jockeying, with escalating warnings of disaster which lead to some worried op-eds about how the U.S. must get involved to resolve the conflict. And then it will resolve itself, likely within a month. I could be wrong -- lord knows, Iraq is hard to predict -- but that's my sense. Check back in a month and we'll see.
All of that sounds plausible ... though, as Lynch says, we'll see whether the overall tone of this prognosis proves to be overly optimistic.
The other main headline of the Iraqi election campaign has to be the overwhelmingly nationalist tone of all major politicians and the marginal American role in the process. The election campaign (as opposed to the results, which we still don't know) showed clearly that Iraqis are determined to seize control of their own future and make their own decisions. The U.S. ability to intervene productively has dramatically receded, as the Obama administration wisely recognizes. [....] This doesn't mean ignoring Iraq -- the truth is, the Obama administration has been paying a lot more attention to Iraq than the media has over the last year. It means moving to develop a normal, constructive strategic relationship with the new Iraqi government, with the main point of contact the Embassy and the private sector rather than the military, and adhering in every way possible to the SOFA and to the drawdown timeline.
The rest is here.

=> The Iraqis and their political leaders now have a second chance to work out a durable long-term settlement, if they don't screw it up.

The previous opportunity, following the elections of 2005, was blown up by the horrendous violence of 2006-2007, which almost sent Iraq over the edge. The crucial dynamic that produced that catastrophe was the campaign of systematic large-scale murder of Shiite civilians by fascist and jihadist core of the so-called Sunni Arab "insurgency," which eventually succeeded in detonating a full-scale inter-sectarian civil war in Arab Iraq, involving gruesome retaliatory murders of Sunni Arab civilians--in which Sadrist militias played a central role--along with large-scale ethnic cleansing on both sides. Now both the terrorists of the Sunni Arab "insurgency" and the armed wing of the Sadrists seem to have been marginalized (not eliminated, but marginalized). And most reports indicate that the great majority of Iraqis have no taste at all for resuming inter-sectarian civil war.

For these reasons among others, it does seem possible that things will work out more successfully this time around--though, again, there's no guarantee they will.

If we want to start imagining worst-case scenarios, the possibility that (rightly or wrongly) strikes me as most dangerous would be for Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab political forces to come together by forming an alliance, however temporary, in order to turn on the Kurds. As anyone who reads the newspapers must be aware, a lot of difficult and complex issues still need to be resolved concerning the extent of Kurdish autonomy within a federalized or semi-federalized Iraq, the boundaries of the Kurdish autonomous region, the sharing of oil rights and revenues, and so on. And for many Arabs in Iraq and the rest of the Arab world (along with many Arabists in western foreign-policy circles and, of course, the Turkish government), the whole idea of Kurdish autonomy or self-determination remains distasteful, threatening, and/or unacceptable. When journalists and other analysts talk about "nationalist" tendencies in Iraqi politics, what that often involves in practice is appeals to Arab nationalist sentiments, and it's conceivable that an anti-Kurdish agenda could be a basis for reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite Arabs, despite their mutual distrusts and hatreds.

That would be bad news, and could set the stage for inter-ethnic Arab/Kurdish civil war. Along these lines, any governing coalition in Iraq that did not include the Kurdish parties (presumably requiring some kind of pact between the coalitions led by Maliki and by Allawi) would almost certainly be a first sign of movement toward political catastrophe.

But at the moment that's no more than a hypothetical possibility, and (rightly or wrongly) it's not one that strikes me as likely. Right now, in fact, I think there are plausible grounds for guarded optimism about Iraq's future. Time will tell.

(And in the meantime, if anyone wants more pessimistic speculations, Juan Cole offered his own set of unpleasant scenarios today.)

Hoping for the best,
Jeff Weintraub