The Foreign Service Journal, March 2005

The invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime were the easy part. Shock and awe worked for the world’s unrivaled military power against a second-rate military force greatly eroded by sanctions and demoralized by incompetent and despotic political leadership. The replacement of that leadership and the reconstruction of the Iraqi state have been far harder tasks. None of the easy answers — neither the alluring predictions of Iraqi opposition leaders nor the dazzling analytical confidence of imperial theorists along the banks of the Potomac and the Hudson — have fit the deadly and ambiguous realities that shape the political landscape on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. Long-term success may be attainable, but it is not guaranteed. What the Elections Mean It is part of the American ideology that elections are the only route to political legitimacy. Elections in Iraq carry huge risks but are impelled by forces that go beyond democratic legitimacy. Some of these forces are of our own making — the messianic rhetoric of aggressive Wilsonianism, which the administration adopted to justify the war in Iraq despite the absence of hard indications of either an imminent or rapidly growing threat to U.S. national security. President Bush and others now proclaim democracy in Iraq as the test of our success. Other pressures for elections come from the very predictable motivations of various Iraqi political rivals and the understandable aspirations of the long-suffering Iraqi people. Elections in Iraq are desirable and important, but it was predictable that those of Jan. 30 would not be con- sidered legitimate by the large portions of the Iraqi pop- ulation who did not participate. Their absence from the polls was due to a range of factors — hatred of anything connected with the U.S. occupation, the absence of campaigning in many regions, the security-driven lack of publicity for the many names of Sunni Arab politicians on various lists and, very often, a well-founded fear of death. But, except for a very few insurgency leaders, the failure to vote was not because particular classes of Iraqis “don’t want democracy.” Whether meaningful elections could be held in some governorates had long been in doubt, but disappointing turnouts in Mosul and in heav- ily Sunni quarters of the Iraqi capital, such as Adhamiya, were a genuinely serious setback. By contrast, prelimi- nary results indicate that the successful get-out-the-vote campaigns in the Kurdish populated areas of northeast Iraq and in the largely Shi’a governorates of southern Iraq worked to the benefit of religiously guided Shi’as and Kurds. Both groups suffered greatly under the Saddam regime, and both are strongly motivated to ensure that there is no return to his style of rule. However, both groups are probably represented in the Iraqi National Assembly out of proportion to their share of the population. The often breathtaking courage of Iraqi candidates and voters should not lead us to suspend political judg- ment about the outcome. Sunni Arabs were not the only losers in the election. The same is true of the large population of secular Shi’as who resisted the tempta- tion to align themselves as either candidates or voters with the religiously dominated United Iraqi Alliance. Also noteworthy, the minority but politically important Turkmen population (mostly Sunni and often at odds with their Kurdish neighbors) do not feel adequately represented. The dilemma for both Baghdad and Washington was that postponing the election would have been viewed as illegitimate by other sets of Iraqis. Fortunately, it is possible to craft some measures to assure more equi- table representation in the institutions resulting from the election. The newly elected national assembly must name a three-person presidential council, which, in turn, will name a prime minister. A new Cabinet to replace the Iraqi Interim Government and a commit- tee to draft a permanent constitution provide opportu- nities to include Sunni Arabs in the political process. Without their involvement, or without attention to Kurdish demands for autonomy, it is likely that the per- manent constitution would fall short of approval in a referendum to take place no later than Oct. 15. There are still moderate and pragmatic Iraqis — Shi’a and Sunni, Arab and Kurd — who seem willing to make the necessary compromises. For the Sunni Arabs especial- ly, but for other Iraqis as well, this requires great courage. The burden is also heavy for the U.S. and other for- eign military forces, diplomatic establishments and work- F O C U S 28 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / M A R C H 2 0 0 5 David L. Mack is vice president of the Middle East Institute. A former FSO, he served twice in Baghdad and was also deputy assistant secretary for Near East affairs.