I think the argument that Iraq -- in both the best and worst case scenarios -- will end up looking quite similar to Lebanon has a good deal of merit. At worst, the nation could slide into a protracted civil war, its various ethnic factions backed by regional proxies, with a neighbor -- likely Iran, though perhaps Turkey -- eventually invading to provide moderate stability. Hundreds of thousands more might die, perhaps closer to a million, with Baghdad, like Beirut two decades before, playing center stage for the conflict.
It could also coalesce into a brokered democracy that, while subject to the occasional violent skirmish, somewhat frequent political assassinations, and a fractious government continuously dissolving and forming again from the ashes, somehow nobly endures.
But what it is not likely to achieve is a level of stability beyond what Lebanon boasts.
As we approach the March 7 Iraqi elections, which many observers -- particularly those in the U.S. government -- had hoped would prove a hinge of sorts, it looks unlikely that the results will prove the dash toward the stable, multiparty pluralism that neocons' envisaged. The flowering of democracy seems as hesitant in Mesopotamia as it was in the Bekaa valley. Rather than a step forward, we're now perhaps looking to avoid sliding backwards.
There was first the candidate review process, by which some 511 citizens, mostly Sunnis, were disqualified for ties to Saddam's Ba'ath party; then came a review of said review which suggested candidates still be allowed to seek election with cases being reviewed after the vote -- an idea supported by both the U.S. and the UN; after which came a decree by Prime Minister Maliki that such a plan would be unconstitutional, a meeting between the review panel and the prime minister, and reversal by the committee to support the prime minister. Middle East enough?
In the end, 28 of the 168 who properly filed appeals had their verdicts overturned and will stand for election.
In response to the turmoil, Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni member of parliament now banned from seeking reelection, announced that he and his Front for National Dialogue will sit out the election in protest. It's a disconcerting development but one that, on its own, does not represent an existential threat. As long as the protest doesn't gain traction and lead to a near complete Sunni boycott, as was the case in 2005, the elections could still mark progress.
Assuming reasonable participation across ethnic lines, the key will be how quickly a government can form, and how willing Iraqis are to stomach accounts of manipulation and high-profile attacks that are all but inevitable as the world focuses in. Far more important than the outcome of the actual voting will be the merit of the process, the legitimacy of the system, and how quickly a new government can form. In 2005, the six months between voting totals and the formation of a unity government ran parallel to the descent into full scale civil war. And because of that 2005 boycott, this next assembly, and what it is able to achieve between now and 2014, will be the first true test of democratic governance for the broader public to judge. It may not get a second chance. Can vicious disputes over oil and Kirkuk be solved in an acceptable manner to all factions?
Already there are reports of cash, blankets, and heaters being traded for votes -- as was also alleged in the 2009 provincial elections.
What Iraq, and thus the United States, cannot afford is for the elections to mirror Afghanistan's or neighboring Iran's. Massive fraud, political upheaval, and a disaffected public, will mark the beginning of a slide back to chaos.
Despite a number of high profile attacks, the Iraqi population remains positive about security gains, according to the November 2009 State Department review (page 33). The study illustrates perceptions of local security alongside doubts about the broader nation's security: "over 70% of Iraqis described their local area as calm... About 55% believe their province is calm and over 25% of Iraqis say Iraq is calm." Perception is reality.
To say the the success of U.S. efforts largely hinges on the aftermath of March 7 would not be an overstatement. The legitimacy of the young government has little to gain, but stands to lose a great deal in the process.
The most important differences between Lebanon and Iraq include size, oil wealth, and that Kurds, rather than Christians, represent the third dominant ethno-religious sect.
What remains is the intransigence born from the lines men (and women) have drawn between themselves; a loyalty to tragic common histories rather than a shared future; the inability to summon the kind of respect -- even love -- for one's mortal enemy that perhaps only Mandela was truly capable of. But there's little question that that, and a good deal of luck, is what Lebanon has flirted with, and what Iraqis must attempt to summon in full.
Photo of 2009 provincial ballot via uniraq.org