Thursday, November 02, 2006

The problem of control

The fundamental issue surrounding America's war in Iraq - indeed, the broader problem of Islamic political power and terrorism - is how do we respond in places where our principles (free elections) compete with national security problems (empowering Islamic parties.) In some ways, it's similar to the American problem of the Cold War, where free elections would have, in the case of Vietnam, undoubtedly have elected Communists.

Of course, this is most relevant in Iraq because this war has, retroactively, been waged on humanitarian grounds. So it's worth revisiting the long, farcical saga of Iraqi attempts to put together some form of self-government, and the American success in halting those attempts.

The earliest attempts were, naturally enough, local towns and villages trying to put their civic organs back together. I mentioned, last week, an account from Cobra II where the Iraqis - with the help of US Marines - were trying to put an election together, only to have Paul Bremer halt any election. This was explicitly done to prevent an Islamic political victory.

But aside from local initiatives, there was a national effort to have early elections, advocated primarily by the Shia leader Ali Sistani. The US argued - falsely - that there was no voting roster. Sistani pointed out that a roster could easily be built on the UN food aid program's records, an idea the Americans rejected. Eventually, Sistani put a half million protesters in the streets of Baghdad, forcing the Americans to finally accept the idea of elections in principle.

This began the Americans' efforts to decide how, exactly, the elections would be rigged to their benefit. The original proposal was to have indirect election, where selected Iraqis would be allowed to form caucuses and elect leaders from there. This idea was rejected once again by Sistani and the Shia community, who once more went to the streets in January of 2004.

Bush, apparently concerned that the election of a Islamic Shia government would ruin the election campaign, eventually, grudgingly conceded to hold a general election, but postponed it for a year - until January of 2005. This was an unnecessary delay, as Sistani had been proposing election for May/June of 2004.

(Juan Cole and Needlenose have excellent accounts of this sad tale.)

As we know, the elections were eventually held - only to bring us, in a roundabout way, to where we are now with a disintegrating national government and sectarian violence shredding any hope of enduring national unity.

This is all, I think, key to understanding how the Iraqis became quickly disenchanted with the American occupation. As bad as the occupation was at keeping order, things had calmed down a bit during the winter of 03-04. Had the Americans seized the opportunity then to hold early elections and get the hell out of Iraq, Bush could probably have called this all a victory.

And herein lies the problem - it was never enough to let the Iraqis choose their own fate. Even a reasonably secular elected Iraqi government would have been a staunch foe of Israel, would have stifled Kurdish independence, and would have been cooperative with other OPEC nations. This was not what America wanted from their invasion, so control had to be maintained. But the goals of liberation and national policy are diametrically opposed, and national policy won out.

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