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Monday, January 31, 2005

Say The Right Things....When Electioneering

As always, I write as a human being first, as a progressive second, and as a partisan Democrat third.

As you may have heard, there were elections over in Iraq on Sunday.

Initial press reports were quick to brand the process a smashing success. To the extent that such reports are accurate, it's a very good thing for Iraq, and ultimately for the United States as well. The primary heroes here are the brave Iraqis who turned out for an election, under at least some degree of threat that they would be targeted for terrorist activity.

Back in the States, the expected people said the expected things, which, unfortunately, in this climate means lots of unfair statements and mischaracterization of positions. I'm not going to characterize all of it as "gloating" - except to the extent that the Right as a group is attempt to tar everyone in the progressive blogosphere as "rooting for the terrorists" or "for the insurgents" or "against the troops" or whatever. I doubt there are really that many people in America rooting against the troops, or against the situation improving in Iraq, or for the "terrorists" or the "insurgents" operating there, however one wants to define those terms. If some of our dire predictions (whether they be public or, like most of mine, kept largely private) failed to come true, that's fine with me.

Except that I am always warning myself (and anyone else who'd listen) not to get to get too caught up in the moment, whatever it might be. Blogging is unique in the sense that it gives the people the chance to fix their thoughts on the Internet in tangible form more or less instantaneously, and among the many risks one takes in doing so is the ease with one can lose a sense of perspective as to where what they have just witnessed fits in with the greater picture.

This is still a country with no democratic tradition; Which doesn't necessarily mean that it's doomed to be ruled by brutal dictators for eternity, merely that the transition in such a case is problematic and an attempt to "impose" a system from without should be considered fraught. More importantly, it's a country of different peoples, who want different things that in some real senses are mutually exclusive - and that's before you consider the influence Iran and Turkey, now with even more power vis-a-vis the fledgling Iraqi state, might want to exert in the process.

Whether the Iraqis consider the government they elected legitimate is far more important than whether I do or don't. And we don't know how that's going to shake out yet. Reports of low turnout in areas mostly populated by Sunni Arabs, and irregularities in some northern areas, are unsurprisng but still vitiate claims that all is sweetness and light.

To state the obvious, the elections are a PR boon for the Bush administration going to the State of the Union address. However, if they are still thinking in terms of what will net them short-term PR boons in foreign (or, for that matter, domestic) policy, it will be to the detriment of everyone involved.

I also haven't forogtten that the administration was cool on the idea of elections at this time, agreeing to them because key figure Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani insisted on them. I also haven't forgotten that an Iraqi democracy might not be as friendly to the United States as many Americans may assume. There were apparently widespread rumors that the receipt of food rations were contingent upon voting, which if true would put at least a little bit of a damper on the whole situation.

Sonmething that I had actually forgotten about until this morning: there were elections in South Vietnam in September of 1967, and the American press took it, and the fact that there was relatively high turnout under vaguely similar circumstances, as a sign that the war effort was going well. That the history of these elections is obscure today suggests how much they accomplished.

Four months later came the Tet Offensive.

Now the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq aren't perfect, but they serve to illustrate that tactical victories do not necessarily equal strategic ones. Ask the French about the Battle of Algiers. (Or, heck, the Tet Offensive was arugably itself a tactical victory for American forces.)

I'm a skeptic by my very nature, but I think I'm entitled to more skepticism than usual in this case. Why? I think It would be strange indeed if the decision makers responsible for this war were as right about how well these elections turn out as many of the initial media reports seem to be suggesting. After all, this crowd been so jaw-droppingly wrong about nearly everything else connected with Iraq: alleged links between Iraq and terrorism; the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction; the equipment needs of the war and occupation; the machinations of Ahmad Chalabi; the very nature of the Iraqi insurgency, specifically the extent to which it was driven by Saddam supporters and/or foreign Islamist terror networks; and the effects of a series of events - the killing of Saddam's two sons, the capture of Saddam himself, and the Fallujah offensive - on the course of the occupation.

I don't think it's unfair or overly dour to ask if this is in some sense "Mission Accomplished" all over again.


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