Elections in Iraq

This is a commentary from someone who thinks that democracy and elections are awesome.  Just keep that in mind.

We’re not sure what the commentary in the US is like, but the BBC commentary and ABC (Australian) commentary that we’ve seen makes the Iraqi election sound like a "smashing success."  From the coalition perspective, this is pretty great.  We’ve heard a lot of commentary especially from pro-war segments that makes the claim that the success of the elections shows that freedom and liberty has spread to one part of the Middle East, and that this shows the power of democracy.

What I (yes, this is TP) think about when I hear this is the following.  Can you name one policy position that any party in this election has taken, aside from something contentless like "prosperity" or "strong Iraq"?  Can you arrange the parties along some sort of ideological spectrum regarding the role of government in business and society?  This is similar to the case of many new democracies.  Parties in Indonesia, for example, are merely vehicles for individuals to seek power.  Parties here have names like Indonesian Democratic Party, Prosperous Justice Party, Community Democracy Party, Democratic Patriots Party, and the like.  There’s not much content behind these names, just a couple powerful figures vying for access to political power.  It’s not quite democracy as we have in the West, at least not yet.

It’s not that this is so much a problem, in Indonesia or in Iraq or in any other place.  It just suggests that before we feel confident that democracy, freedom, and liberty has been brought to Iraq, we ought to see what the elected government does.  I, for one, wish to be cautious in assessing the success of Iraqi democracy, because I have no idea what an elected government would do.  Elections are a first step, and only a first step.  If there’s one thing that living in Indonesia has taught us, it’s that elections are great, but elections are not a sufficient condition for life to be great.  You have to elect good governments, and the governments, once elected, have to do good things, and the people have to listen to what the government says.  We saw on BBC this morning an Iraqi woman who said that she wants her elected government to turn into an Iran-style theocracy.  There’s always the fear that voters can elect terrible leaders.  Remember, Hitler and the NSDAP won legitimate elections.

Some of you will view this as a bit of pessimism by an old-fashioned liberal who is suspicious of the Bush administration.  My response to that is that it’s hard to understand why you would want to ignore a real possibility.  Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, right?  (Maybe Rumsfeld has learned his lesson now.)  That’s why the Bush administration faces a tough choice right now.  To have heard the rhetoric, and from what we can see of American public opinion, the Bush administration is eager to get ready to pull out of Iraq as soon as possible.  The same line of reasoning that says "you opposed the war, but it’s already happened, so you might as well support the peace" applies again here.  Now that the US has gotten itself so involved in Iraq, the US really cannot afford to pull out too quickly, despite clamberings from some elements of the American left and other populist voices who want to bring the troops home.  I find myself in the awkward position of wanting every individual whom I know in Iraq to come home safely and quickly, but wanting the US to commit to long-term involvement to see the project through.

Consider this thought experiment.  An elected Iraqi government order coalition troops out of Iraq immediately.  We know–remember, this is hypothetical–that if this were to happen, there would be a massive crackdown on Sunni Muslims by pro-government Shiite and Kurd forces.  Should the coalition pull out?  I think that the answer would have to be no, even though an elected Iraqi government has attempted to exert its own authority.

This also puts me in the weird position of having opposed the war when it started, but now hoping that coalition troops remain there for quite some time.

Comments 12

  1. Josh February 2, 2005

    Can you name one policy position that any party in this election has taken, aside from something contentless like “prosperity” or “strong Iraq”?
    There’s a general description of the parties and their positions here: http://chrenkoff.blogspot.com/2005/01/whos-who-of-iraqi-political-parties.html
    Beyond that, given that all of the major parties capable of forming a government have reiterated their position that the US should stay to provide security, I doubt the nightmare “get out so we can kill the Sunnis” situation describe is a real possibility, not to even mention the fact that said Sunnis are pretty well-armed, so it’s not even necessarily a physical possibility. Moreover, the heads of all the parties have also reiterated their desire for the Sunnis, who voted in proportionally smaller numbers due to boycotting and forced boycotting, to be included in the Constitutional process.
    Above all, though, I believe that the fact that Iraqis have a government they chose and was not appointed by the US and UN is hugely significant in and of itself, conferring a legitimacy that is otherwise missing.
    To have heard the rhetoric, and from what we can see of American public opinion, the Bush administration is eager to get ready to pull out of Iraq as soon as possible.
    I don’t know where you get that idea — the administration is being attacked daily by Democrats for not being willing to set goals for American troop withdrawals and therefore perpetuating an ‘indefinite’ American presence in Iraq. So if they’re eager to pull out as soon as possible, they’re doing a good job of hiding it.

  2. Tom February 2, 2005

    Yo, that list of parties totally proves my point. The major difference between the parties, aside from ethnic affilitations, is the names of people in charge, the names of organizations under them, and the amount of troops that they have/do control. Almost all of them say something like “we urge conciliation” or “we want monarchy,” but hardly any concrete political aims.
    Regarding potential killings, I guess I didn’t make the ‘hypothetical’ in my statement strong enough. Anyhoo, it’s just something you think about. Even a pitched battle between Shiites and Sunnis would be bad, not just a potential genocide or something (which is, indeed, pretty unlikely). The point is, elections aren’t enough…electoralism doesn’t mean democracy, and hopefully the Bush administration realizes that, although it’s tough to figure out why they’d be so proud of themselves for spreading freedom and liberty if they did.
    I could not agree more with the statement that Iraqis have a government that they chose for themselves is hugely significant. Elections are awesome! When you look at other new democracies, however, you realize that having legitimacy for a good election makes people happy for about, oh, thirty minutes or so before they start getting mad if the government doesn’t do good things. I’m thinking of (yes) Indonesia and Amien Rais, its first democratically-elected post-Soeharto president.
    I don’t think that our positions are that far away from one another on this one. I do, though, wish to be a little more cautious in lauding the Shiite political parties for being inclusive. Of course they will say that. It’s not like people forget grievances when given the chance to win an election. I seem to remember someone arguing that he was going to be a uniter, not a divider. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
    At the very end of your comment you say that Democrats are challenging the US administration to set deadlines. Let’s not forget that populist Republicans do the same thing, but party labels aside, anyone who says that we should withdraw from Iraq right now is an idiot. Note that that’s not the same as saying “tell us when you want to withdraw,” which is a (slightly) more reasonable position. I concede that I might not be getting as good news about the US as you have been. I do know that American public opinion has been turning against the occupation, which is sad now, and I hope the Bush administration resists it.
    (I just got the Economist from like three weeks ago that has Bush on the cover. Its position on Bush’s responsibilities in Iraq is just like my own–cautious, don’t yield to temptation to withdraw!)

  3. Jeff February 2, 2005

    I was just amazed by the defiant courage of the Iraqis who voted in the election, with the sounds of mortars and machine guns in the background as they stood in line, and killings being reported during the day – a few of the voters (as I read) even stepping over the body parts (fingers, I read) of a recently exploded suicide bomber to get to the ballot boxes.
    The number of voters was very high when compared with expectations under such circumstances. But looking with a colder eye at the election and the percentage of registered voters who cast ballots (probably more than 57%), one might also say that four in ten were either too afraid to vote, or tried to and couldn’t because of a lack of ballots or a voting place where they live, or worse yet, actually chose not to because they saw the election as illegitimate. And these are not bored, apathetic and jaded non-voters a la the US non-voting populace. These folks who didn’t participate just registered to vote within the last 6 months. Of the six in ten who did vote, some were asked by journalists what they were voting for and half of them said they were voting for a new president. Many of the candidates remained anonymous until just a few days before the election out of fear of assassination. Some voters were told that it was their religious duty to vote and others were told to boycott the election. As many as 50 people were killed trying to vote.
    Under normal circumstances, this mess would qualify as anything from a very limited success to a farce. But under the current circumstances, it was much better than what could have been expected and will, I’m sure, be seen as a “resounding success” in symbolic terms when Bush gives his State of the Union address tomorrow night. But was the election the triumphant justification for our “mission” in Iraq? Or was it the repudiation of the violence, killings, terror and loss that continues, even under American occupation, to be the story of Iraq? Did the voters see the election as a way to end the war?
    We’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars, nearly 1500 American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian lives to get to this election. If you had been asked on September 10th, 2001, if that was an acceptable cost in the pursuit of bringing open elections to Iraq, what would your answer have been?

  4. Tom February 2, 2005

    See, and now I’m not quite so jaded as Jeff. I think that the fact that the election IS a symbolic success may help things a lot. They certainly help the president. But whatever, Bush’s legacy is a small price to pay for doing elections on time as legitimately as possible. My point is that before we pat ourselves on the back, even rhetorically, we should make sure we’ve got our priorities straight.
    And I must protest, Jeff, that no matter how much I disagreed with going to war in Iraq, I don’t think we can ignore the fact that we’re there now, and we’d better get it right.

  5. Josh February 2, 2005

    If you had been asked on September 10th, 2001, if that was an acceptable cost in the pursuit of bringing open elections to Iraq, what would your answer have been?
    I don’t know, maybe it would have been the same as my answer about the cost of freeing Europe on December 6th, 1941.

  6. Josh February 2, 2005

    Tom, my point about Dems asking for timetables for withdrawal wasn’t that they deserve to be criticized for it — the way you put the part about withdrawal in the original post made it seem like the administration is eager to get out, but it’s actually the opposite.
    I see what you’re getting at about what the positions of the political parties involved are, but is that really any different than the delegates to the US Constitutional Convention? The states sent representatives based on stature and reputation within the state, who were there to represent their interests in drafting the Constitution.

  7. Jeff February 3, 2005

    After Pearl Harbor, a lot of American kids enlisted to defend their country. I know it’s rude and juvenile of me to ask, but I want to know—is the price of democracy in Iraq one you would be willing to pay with your own life?

  8. Tom February 3, 2005

    Not the correct argument to Jeff, Josh. Had you asked what was the price to bring democracy to, say, Chile on December 6th, 1941, it would be the correct question.
    As for delegates to the US constitutional convention, that, I think, is the absolute best case scenario, that Iraqis have done exactly the same thing with our help. But don’t forget, these delegates still had very strong policy positions on things besides “I should be in charge.” Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, all of these guys. I’m just sayin’.

  9. Josh February 3, 2005

    “Not the correct argument to Jeff, Josh. Had you asked what was the price to bring democracy to, say, Chile on December 6th, 1941, it would be the correct question.”
    With all due respect to John Belushi, the Germans didn’t attack Pearl Harbor.
    “As for delegates to the US constitutional convention, that, I think, is the absolute best case scenario, that Iraqis have done exactly the same thing with our help. But don’t forget, these delegates still had very strong policy positions on things besides “I should be in charge.” Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, all of these guys. I’m just sayin’.”
    I think that’s a pretty disingenuously reductionist view of Iraq’s political parties.
    You’re holding them to an unrealistic standard — having not been able to openly debate policy positions until 18 months ago, how could they possibly have well-defined party positions on all the issues?

  10. Tom February 3, 2005

    Guh? The Germans were Japanese allies. Iraq and Afghanistan/Taliban/OBL: not allies. Didn’t you get that memo? And anyway, Jeff’s question was the wrong one too, I just forgot to say it. September 10th shouldn’t have anything to do with the price of freedom in Iraq.
    But when it comes to political parties and their positions, you and I totally agree. Not fair to Iraqis that they weren’t allowed to debate policies in the open. Not reasonable to assume that they would have well-defined party positions on all the issues. Yet empirically speaking, that’s the situation on the ground in Iraq right now, and being sad about it doesn’t change it. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
    As for “disingenously reductionist,” I make the same assumption for every politician, ESPECIALLY in the West. Goal number 1: get in power. Goal number 2: stay in power. The difference is that party leaders in the United States and other established democracies offer policy signals as a way to explain to their voters how they are going to get what they want. Iraq does not have that yet. I know it’s sad, but it’s true.
    I just can’t for the life of me figure out why one wouldn’t want to be as realistic as possible going when viewing Iraqi elections. I love elections! I want things to be great there! But that does not make elections enough, and hoping for the best is a bad way to plan policy.

  11. Matt Glassman February 5, 2005

    I think you can forget about whether it would be worth $200 billion dollars, 2000 American lives, and 50,000 Iraqi lives to transform Iraq into a stable democracy – of course it would be. Anti-war types were saying this right before the war, when they were predicting 10 times as many deaths. That cost is almost nothing compared to the possibility of substantially bettering the lives of 15 million people. Remember, Saddam was killing people at a rate of over 100k / year. And many others were living in total fear of the state. From a utilitarian standpoint that doesn’t value American human life over other kinds of human life, this is a no-brainer. You just do it. (This of course leaves out the tricky issue of whether there were more efficient places in the world to do it, and the even trickier issue of your utilitarian metric, and the yet even trickier issue of whether utilitarianism is a reasonable theory. But bear with me).
    However, the real comparison is whether it is worth that much if we end up failing and Iraq falls into civil war. Then it’s much more of a tricky question. In some ways it can be gamed out:
    Prob(civil war) * awfulness(civil war) + Prob (no civil war) * awfulness (no civil war) vs.
    awfulness (Baathist) (assuming perpetual Baathists)
    Yes, this is simplistic, but it’s worth doing for yourself, particularly if you are cosmopolitan enough to believe that your freedom is no more deserved than anyone else’s in the world.
    Personally, i say this is a toss up. I put the probability of civil war at 50% and the long-term awfulness of civil war and what replaces it as
    (across a probability spectrum) about half as bad as Saddam maintaining power over hte long run. Factor in the problems of spreading war, anti-americanims abroad, etc., and neo-conservatism probably fails.
    Nevertheless, from a human rights and dignity standpoint, i think this war was moral. Or better said, given that the imperfect political system we have chose to undertake this war, i don’t think you can say it was IMMORAL on its face.
    hope all is well with you guys

  12. Tom February 6, 2005

    Hey Matt…I’m sympathetic to that logic. But first off, I’ve seen that 100,000 figure tossed around, and I just don’t quite buy it. I’ve also seen 10,000. The fact that people disagree about these numbers by as much as an order of magnitude is a good sign that we don’t really know, and that we should be sure before solving.
    I’d change that equation a bit. I don’t think you can assume that the future is an infinite stream of Baathism if we don’t intervene. Aside from that, you’re absolutely right, that’s how you have to think about it. But then you get to the most bizarre ideas, like was it worth destroying a village in Vietnam to save it?
    I’d also step back a bit further too. If our decision calculus is “what is moral,” we have to think about things like is it moral for me not to give my disposable income to poor kids in New Haven. The point is, moral is hard.
    There is one stream of logic that you point out that I could not agree with more–from a utilitarian standpoint, as well as any theoretical liberal or libertarian standpoint, my life as an American is no more or less valuable than an Iraqi’s. The ultimate in cosmopolitanism. Remember our email discussions about free trade and protectionism from last spring?

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