Wealth of Nations February 2005

Iraq's Election, and What Comes Next

The U.S. can still redeem its misadventure in Iraq, despite all the administration's mistakes.

Interviewed on Meet the Press last weekend, John Kerry never wavered: Invited to say he was impressed by the turnout in Iraq's election, he declined, saying that it had been merely "as expected." By whom? Was anybody else as optimistic last week as Kerry says he was? Most people had been dreading—or, depending on where they stood, contentedly expecting—an election where nobody showed up. Unlike the junior senator from Massachusetts, most of the world was surprised that so many Iraqis defied the country's murderous insurgents and stood proudly in line to cast their votes.

Good news in Iraq is rare these days. So much has turned bad that even the White House is no longer arguing that things have gone according to plan. Some of what went wrong was always going to, because the task America and its partners took on was so difficult. A lot of the mess, on the other hand, could have been avoided: Negligence and incompetence are to blame for much of it. Nonetheless, the election shows that despite all the errors, forced and unforced, not everything has gone wrong—and that a great prize is still at stake.

The occupation is unpopular with many Iraqis, and not just with the minority Sunnis: The terrible violence on the streets and the toll taken on the country's economic infrastructure have left many people feeling worse off than before the war. But the election shows that it is wrong to think that Iraqis have no real appetite for democracy, or to think that the effort spent on moving the country toward it is futile—mere public relations, undertaken at enormous cost to Iraq and America alike. On the contrary, the freedom to cast a vote, even in such a flawed election—and it certainly was flawed—obviously meant a lot to most Iraqis. This was good to see, inspiring even. It is surely a hopeful sign.

Looking ahead, though, does it make the task of America and its partners any easier? Aside from this week's lifting of the spirits—and, depending on what the insurgents do next, that may not last long—the answer is no. If the United States does the right thing, it will find no fast, easy exit from Iraq. Election Day was a success, to be sure, but it has not altered that depressing reality.

For a moment after America's victory over Saddam Hussein in 2003, as Iraqis celebrated the regime's downfall, it was possible to think that forthcoming elections would consummate the nation building that the United States had undertaken. There would be some necessary delay: a period of rule by viceroy in all but name, then partial, nondemocratic rule by Iraqis. But these transitional arrangements would be followed shortly by elections, and Iraq would be a sovereign nation again, and a democracy too.

Today, it is unclear whether a democratic Iraq can ever be a nation. At the moment, if not for the presence of American forces, Iraq would be facing an outright civil war between the majority Shiites, suppressed by the old regime, and the minority Sunnis, fighting to restore their powers and privileges. This is to say nothing of Iraq's other big minority, the Kurds, many of whom want full independence.

Eventually, some sort of loose confederation may be the only way to rule the country. But even if these groups might one day live comfortably under a single polity, America will not have built a nation in Iraq until the country is properly governable—that is, until a legitimate government has a monopoly on the use of force and all Iraqis enjoy a minimum standard of physical security. Elections are a step forward in that regard. They move the government closer to legitimacy. But they do little or nothing to move the country closer to security.

In his interview, Kerry said that the election (the Iraqi election, that is) was only "kind of" legitimate. On that, he was correct. True, it is the insurgents' fault and that of the Sunni political leaders, not the fault of America and its allies, that the election failed to draw in all Iraqis. But when it comes to judging the vote's perceived legitimacy, where the fault lies makes no difference. With Sunnis for whatever reason underrepresented in the polling, the results have no effective claim on their consent or loyalty. And the election was flawed in other ways, too: no campaigning, no engagement of competing political ideas. It was not a sham, by any means. Nor was it, unfortunately, an election that confers legitimacy in the way that is taken for granted in the West.

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