Critics of the Bush administration's Iraq adventure - and they are many and
cogent - have a duty to admit when the U.S. does something that seems to
turn out well. The first impression of the elections in Iraq is that this
is one such case. The refusal to postpone the voting in the face of
terrorist threats may very well have speeded up that country's arduous
march toward democracy and the return home of American troops.
No one can deny the courage of the ordinary Iraqis who waited in long lines
to vote. The joy was infectious. It reflected the preceding months'
reawakening of political activity that was occasionally mentioned but in
hindsight seriously underreported by the Western press. Official results
are still days away, but UN election observer Carlos Valenzuela told the
Associated Press that turnout was higher than expected - even in the Sunni
area most affected by the terror attacks. The standard might be low for
that 20 percent of Iraq's population, but among the previously oppressed
Shiite and Kurds the results seem phenomenal by anyone's measure. Some
Kurdish officials claimed that 90 percent voted in some of their regions.
Even if the overall total falls below 50 percent, it would compare
respectably with the U.S. experience. We are also hearing remarkably few
complaints about the conduct of the election: not as many as we heard from,
say, Ohio last year. Some Sunni groups are complaining, but the results
look as legitimate as you get in the Middle East.
This is only the first step, of course. The leading slates, almost surely
the Shiites and Kurds, will have to put together a government that will
write a constitution that will provide the framework for another vote and
more permanent institutions. Will these former victims of oppression show
the magnanimity to satisfy the legitimate needs of the Sunni minority (most
of which also suffered from Saddam Hussein's psychopathy)? They certainly
deserve the chance to try.
The indigenous people of the U.S. and the rest of the world will have a
special interest in the constitutional framework that the new Iraq provides
for the Kurdish people of its northeastern mountains. The Kurds are
considered the largest ethnic group in the Middle East to have never had a
chance at self rule. Their brothers across the border in Turkey have been
harshly suppressed by that country's nationalist government, which has
discouraged use of their language and at one point even denied their
separate identity. The Turkish alliance with the U.S. complicates things
considerably. Ankara is nervously watching the Kurdish resurgence in Iraq
and has made noises about intervention if it becomes too powerful. So far,
Kurdish leaders have shown remarkable statesmanship, resolving old family
feuds and denying any ambition to break away from Iraq. They deserve a
federal structure that preserves their culture, language and political
autonomy. The country itself is such a mosaic that a federal principle of
cultural and tribal self rule could well be a unifying theme. The sovereign
tribes of the U.S. will certainly cheer them on.
But this is a job for Iraqis, not Americans. Some of the entirely
understandable anger at the occupation seems to have arisen from the
micro-mismanagement of the now-gone Coalition Provisional Authority, and
the sooner the Iraqi government can take over public services, the better
for everyone. This includes garbage pickup, water and the intermittent
electricity, as well as security. The irony of the terrorist insurgency is
that it targets exactly those Iraqis who are trying to restore the civil
service and thus speed the exit of the U.S. troops. The fanatical thugs are
aiming for a homicidal chaos which they hope would so disgust the American
public that we would pull out without regard for the consequences, which
would include their takeover. The success of the elections has dealt them a
bigger defeat than American forces ever could. The work that lies ahead,
however, will remain difficult.
It might be reasonable to decry the inflexibility of President Bush and the
many errors made by his administration in the justification and execution
of the war (including the discredited weapons of mass destruction rationale
and the shameful Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal) but, he deserves strong
credit for defending the near universal quest for human freedom and
insisting that the Iraq vote go off on schedule. And he is taking another
stand - considering what might be possible still for Iraq - in resisting
the call of some Democrats and foreign powers for a timetable for troop
withdrawal. This would only increase the incentive for attacks on American
troops, which include such a high proportion of American Indians. Rather
than say troops will leave on a set timetable, the U.S. should say they
will stay until certain conditions are met, such as a return of public
order. This would place the incentive on the Iraqis to support their own
security forces, and denounce those attacking them as agents for a
prolonged American presence.
Another condition would be the emergence of a stable Iraqi government, and
the elections have certainly been a giant step toward that goal.