The most important election in determining the future of U.S. policy in the Middle East may not be the one happening on November 2. Sometime in the 10 days after the victor takes the presidential oath of office on January 20, another election will take place in Iraq. This will determine the composition of a national assembly that will govern the country while writing a new, permanent constitution. A legitimate and stable outcome of that election is crucial to both Iraq and the United States. Unfortunately, it also seems increasingly unlikely.
The success of the Iraqi election is the basket in which the Bush administration has put all its eggs. Speaking at the Republican national convention, President Bush described the mission in Iraq as “clear.” We are there, and in Afghanistan, to help “new leaders to train their armies, and move toward elections, and get on the path of stability and democracy as quickly as possible.” The elections will be the moment, effectively, when the United States tries to relinquish its interim power once and for all. To that end, for almost a year now the United Nations team advising the Iraq Election Commission, along with several nongovernmental organizations contracted by the U.S. Agency for International Development, has been laying the groundwork for the vote: training poll watchers, conducting voter-education drives, and working out the daunting logistical issues surrounding an election in a country at war.
Now things are about to gear up. Jeff Fischer, senior adviser for elections and governance at IFES (formerly known as the International Foundation for Election Systems), one of the UN's main partners in Iraq, says that after several recent trips to Baghdad, he's “in a wrap-up process doing recruitment” to put together a larger team that will begin heading to Iraq as The American Prospect goes to press and in the following weeks. Fischer, a veteran of post-conflict elections in Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor, believes “the election process itself can create a dynamic that demonstrates to the Iraqis that there is an alternative to violence.”
It's possible. The International Republican Institute (IRI), another NGO (affiliated with the GOP and dedicated to global democracy promotion) that is working on the Iraqi elections, touts on its Web site its spring poll indicating that 77 percent of Iraqis feel that “regular, fair elections” are the most important political right for the Iraqi people. This, says the IRI, is a “strong rebuttal to critics of efforts to bring democratic reform to Iraq.” Military planners, meanwhile, hope that an elected government will have more legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people, helping to break the cycle in which U.S. and Iraqi counterinsurgency operations lose Iraqi hearts and minds, feeding the very insurgency those efforts were designed to combat.
But such hopes have been raised before, and each time, violence has undermined the measures that were to provide a solution. After the war, reconstruction of Iraq's infrastructure and other economic aid was supposed to lower the unemployment and lessen the discontent from which the insurgency was drawing energy. Instead, America's inability to stabilize the country has rendered economic assistance ineffective, with global-development NGOs and foreign contractors scared away from projects and the bulk of U.S. funds left unspent. As of July, just 2 percent of the $18 billion appropriated the previous October had been disbursed.
Similarly, “Iraqification,” the creation of trained Iraqi security forces, was supposed to take the American face off the occupation and allow Iraqis to take control of their own security. Instead, distracted by the insurgency, American troops have only partially trained these forces. Partly as a result, they have been frequently targeted by deadly attacks and have sustained far higher casualties than their American counterparts. The June 28 transfer of sovereignty, again, was meant to bolster the new regime's legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi public. Instead, the need to repeatedly call on U.S. forces to conduct major operations -- driving Muqtada al-Sadr from Najaf, near-daily air strikes on Fallujah -- has underscored the extent to which Iraq remains a country under occupation.
The outcome of the January elections isn't likely to be any different. In recent post-conflict elections in the Balkans and Southeast Asia, the United Nations, supported by international NGOs and a Security Council resolution, has run the show. Iraq, however, will technically be sovereign, leaving the UN in a mere advisory role with actual control in the hands of the very Iraqi interim government whose legitimacy the vote was designed to test.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Central Command, the only military force in the country capable of imposing order, is suggesting that it won't be able to secure key parts of the country for the election. Speaking to reporters in Baghdad on September 7, Lieutenant General Thomas Metz, the man in charge of day-to-day operations in Iraq, suggested that elections simply might not be held in rebel- or militia-controlled areas like Fallujah, Tikrit, Samara, Ramadi, and the east Baghdad slum of Sadr City. “If a piece of cancer in the country like Fallujah didn't participate, it would still ... be a legitimate election,” Metz told The Associated Press.
Tell that to the residents of Fallujah. If Iraq's most discontented citizens wind up disenfranchised by the elections process, the new government will be seen as illegitimate in the eyes of the very people that process is supposed to win over. As Abdul Salam al-Qubesi of the Sunni clerics association told The New York Times on September 8, “We think the elections will be fake.” While Metz suggests that at least some of the rebel-held areas will be retaken in time for the voting, reducing cities to rubble and then trying to win hearts and minds with elections seems unlikely to succeed.
Even outside insurgent-held areas, basic safety remains desperately inadequate -- especially for foreigners -- in ways that are also undermining the election process. Security Council Resolution 1546 passed on June 8, endorsing the transfer of sovereignty and calling for the creation of a UN protection force to safeguard election workers. So far, none has been created, as foreign governments have proven unwilling to get involved. As a result, Carina Perelli's UN elections team has been essentially limited to the Green Zone in Baghdad. “The international support will largely be focused on the headquarters operation” in the capital, says Fischer, while the election will be “an Iraqi-administered process, particularly in the field.” Voter education and other preparatory work will be done by Iraqis trained by international experts in Baghdad, operating with relatively little supervision, assistance, or protection compared with previous efforts in the Balkans and elsewhere.
The resulting process will be open to fraud in areas where the interim government is strong and to violence and intimidation where it is weak. Even in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has thus far been relatively violence-free, problems loom. A recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded, on the basis of an intensive public-opinion survey over the summer, that “after 13 years of one-party rule in the respective administrations of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Kurds are fed up with their regional governments.” The problem is, security in those areas is currently -- and, compared with the rest of Iraq, effectively -- maintained by the respective militias of the KDP and the PUK, making the possibility of electoral change in the absence of international monitoring remote.
Throughout Iraq, rather than improve the situation, the elections may simply make things worse. The vote will be legitimate enough -- and the United States will have invested enough credibility in its success -- to make it even harder for the United States to distance itself politically or militarily from Iraq's new government. And it won't be legitimate enough -- especially in the most troubled areas -- to soothe anyone's discontent. Whoever loses will, justly or unjustly, feel they've been cheated out of power, and the United States will lose the one public-opinion asset it still has in Iraq: the population's yearning for elections and optimism about the future.
Matthew Yglesias is a staff writer for The American Prospect.
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