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Iraq Elections No Silver Bullet
by Jeffrey Laurenti


January 07, 2005

The Bush administration has hyped the Iraqi elections scheduled for late January 2005 as a turning point in the struggle to win the war it launched nearly two years ago. True, any government that emerges from a reasonably fair election must enjoy more legitimacy than the narrowly based group of occupation supporters to whom Washington turned over the trappings of sovereignty on June 28. But the election will almost certainly not secure a pro-American government in Baghdad.

We have been down this road before. The United States had, after all, sought to give the hollow Saigon regime a patina of democratic legitimacy-indeed, to make it a model of democracy in Southeast Asia-by pressing for elections in South Vietnam in 1967. Two decades later the Reagan administration sought to defeat the leftist insurgency in El Salvador by elections for a civilian-led government.

But elections do not end an insurgency. Negotiations end an insurgency. When combatants agree to a peace settlement, elections can be successful in establishing a durable post-war regime. When there is no settlement, elections or not, the war goes on.

The elections in South Vietnam did not result in increased commitment by Vietnamese to the government of Nguyen Van Thieu, and the election of Jose Napoleon Duarte as president of El Salvador in 1984 did not sap the willingness of the Salvadoran left to fight. In Vietnam, the "elected" government collapsed soon after its foreign sponsors withdrew their forces. In El Salvador, the war raged on for another six years until negotiations produced a political agreement.

The reality that elections may seal a peace agreement, but cannot substitute for one, has been proved time and again, from Central America to Cambodia to Mozambique. Absent a settlement, insurgencies may ultimately be defeated, as seems to have occurred in Peru and Algeria, or continue endlessly, as in Colombia. Even where guerrilla movements are suppressed, the state's security apparatus rather than elections appears to have been the decisive factor.

In Iraq, unfortunately, the troops behind the state apparatus are Americans, whom large majorities of Iraqis repeatedly tell pollsters they want out of their country. Even President Bush has had to concede that the Iraqis hired into the Baghdad security forces are reluctant to fight other Iraqis. With insurgents wrapping themselves in the flag of national resistance or religious zealotry, it will be hard for even an elected government to hold public support at home, much less in the Arab world at large, if it has to depend on American troops to survive.

To be sure, even an election that perpetuates rather than resolves a country's violent divisions can begin to accustom a population to the practices of democratic choice. As Rubin Zamora, the negotiator for El Salvador's Farabundo Marti Front of National Liberation in the 1980s, recently told a conference of diplomats and U.N. peacekeeping officials, the 1984 elections in his country had no impact on ending his country's civil war, but they did set precedents for how to choose a legitimate government that took root once a peace agreement was negotiated. So the efforts of committed Iraqis and international advisors, including those of many Americans and President Bush himself, may well leave an enduring footprint on how Iraqis practice politics, even if the elections are irrelevant to resolving the Iraq conflict.

Strikingly, if a bit ironically, the Bush administration has sought to attach the global credibility of the United Nations to the election exercise in Iraq. Washington has pressed for active U.N. election support ever since "moderate" Iraqi factions refused to deal with occupation officials last January. U.N. election experts fashioned the proportional representation rules for the 2005 election, have trained 6,000 Iraqi electoral workers (often at workshops in Jordan), and are working on voting by Iraqi expatriates abroad.

But the United Nations has been sidelined from any serious efforts at peace-building with militant opposition factions. Its senior negotiator's effort to assemble a broad-based interim government in June was thwarted by occupation officials and their Iraqi allies. So a settlement remains elusive.

It seems likely that Iraqi Arabs will vote overwhelmingly for leaders who have kept a prudent distance from the American occupation or sharply opposed it. (Kurds, by contrast, are enthusiastic for continued close ties to Americans.) Only Washington neo-conservatives blind to the realities of the Arab world could imagine that Iraqis would freely choose collaborators with Western invaders to lead their country. Instead, Iraqis seem more disposed to political figures associated with the moral values of Islam.

Polling conducted in Iraq this fall for the International Republican Institute (of all interested parties!) found that, by far, Iraqis rated the endorsement by clerics or religious organizations as the most compelling guide in choosing a candidate slate in elections: Fully 40 percent said they would be inclined to follow such religious endorsements. By contrast, a slate's endorsement by leaders of the current government was a net negative, with 25 percent more likely to vote against such a slate. Fully 55 percent of Iraqi respondents insisted that the interim government in Baghdad did not represent their interests.

So there is one plausible scenario by which the January elections can speed a peaceful resolution to the Iraqi conflict: the elected assembly can set a deadline for American forces to leave Iraq. Even a Shiite majority government may recognize that the cost of endless war with the nationalist resistance is not sustainable. An elected regime free of Washington's suspect embrace should have far more freedom to seek international assistance from the Arab League and United Nations to hammer out a political settlement with the anti-American insurgents than the interim occupants.

Jeffrey Laurenti
New York, NY - USA


Note: Comments published on Viewpoints are the opinions of the writer
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Sitnews.



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