Sinking in Deeper
Like many of his U.S. press colleagues, New York Times foreign policy columnist Thomas L. Friedman has pronounced himself "unreservedly happy" about the Iraqi election of Jan. 30, adding: "you should be, too."
But there is a dark potential to those pleasing images of Iraqis voting in the face of violence. Rather than pointing toward an exit for the United States from Iraq, the election may be just another mirage leading U.S. troops deeper into Iraq's long and bloody history of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites.
Indeed, if the Sunni-based insurgency doesn't give up in the months ahead, American soldiers could find themselves enmeshed in a long and brutal civil war helping the Shiite majority crush the resistance of the Sunni minority. The Sunnis, who have long dominated Iraq, find themselves in a tight corner and may see little choice but to fight on.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 started the Sunnis' reversal of fortune by ousting the Sunni-run government of Saddam Hussein. Since then, the armed resistance, based in the so-called Sunni Triangle, has represented the Sunnis' reaction to their sharply diminished status as well as their resentment of the U.S.-led military occupation.
Now, the election has hardened this new reality of the Sunnis' secondary role, leaving them a painful choice of either accepting Shiite domination of the country's political system or challenging the powerful U.S. military in a guerrilla war that could turn many Sunni communities into smoking ruins like Fallujah.
Those troubling prospects represent a scenario that the U.S. news media has largely ignored amid the effusive coverage of the Iraqi election. As Iraqis raised fingers stained with voting ink, American journalists scrambled over each other to climb on board George W. Bush's bandwagon.
Just as the U.S. press corps feared challenging Bush during the WMD hysteria in fall 2002 or after the toppled Saddam Hussein statue in spring 2003, the press corps treated the Iraqi election as an unquestioned success story, much as Friedman did in his New York Times column, which was entitled "A Day to Remember." [NYT, Feb. 3, 2005]
But, like those earlier examples of press acquiescence, the lack of skepticism about the real meaning of the Jan. 30 election carries more potential dangers for Americans, especially if the triumphal Bush administration now starts dusting off its most ambitious plans for the Middle East.
If that happens, the military disaster in Iraq - already with the deaths of more than 1,400 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis - could be just a prelude to more catastrophes to come.
Indeed, many of the U.S. mistakes in Iraq can be traced to the American euphoria after the successful three-week U.S. military campaign that ousted Hussein in April 2003. Just weeks later, Bush donned a flight suit, landed on a U.S. aircraft carrier returning home from Iraq, and pronounced the end of major combat while standing under a banner reading "Mission Accomplished."
Then, instead of moving to hold quick elections favored by the first U.S. administrator in Iraq, retired Gen. Jay Garner, Bush's neoconservative advisers pushed instead to restructure Iraq's economy by selling off government assets and adopting a "free-market" model. A quick election might have given some legitimacy to a new Iraqi government and left less political space for insurgents to build their resistance to the U.S. occupation.
But the neoconservatives in Washington saw Iraq as a chance to experiment with their economic and political theories in a Middle Eastern country, much as an earlier generation of U.S. policymakers oversaw a crash dismantling of the old communist structures in Russia in the early 1990s.
Reflecting these pumped-up ambitions, Garner's replacement, Paul Bremer, put off Iraqi elections pending the drafting of a constitution. Over the next several months, however, the Bush administration's ambitious economic schemes floundered, as the insurgency grew and began killing significant numbers of U.S. soldiers.
Eventually, faced with demands from Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, U.S. officials agreed to accelerate the timetable for elections. By then, however, Sunni areas had become largely ungovernable.
Many Sunni leaders urged a postponement of the Jan. 30 election until better security could be arranged. But Shiite leaders, sensing certain victory, insisted on the scheduled election as did President Bush, who had built up the election as a potential turning point in the Iraq War.
The election indeed did prove to be a public-relations boon for the Bush administration and a psychological setback for the insurgents. Much of the enthusiasm about the voting appears real, although some may have been generated by a well-crafted "public diplomacy" effort.
Early claims of a 72 percent turnout set the tone for the day's glowing press coverage, a positive media spin that continued even as the turnout estimates slipped downward – to the mid-50s – as the day wore on. Later reports indicated that many polling stations in Sunni areas were virtually deserted and others hadn't gotten a full supply of ballots.
In retrospect, the election followed what should have been an anticipated course. The long-oppressed Shiite majority, expecting to gain the bulk of national power, voted in fairly large numbers, as did Kurds, who want either autonomy or outright independence. The Sunnis, the powerful minority who had the most to lose from the election, either boycotted it or voted in fairly low numbers.
Turnout was "quite low" in Sunni communities, according to a Western diplomat quoted by the New York Times. Even in the ethnically diverse city of Mosul, the citywide turnout was estimated at barely more than 10 percent. [NYT, Feb. 3, 2005]
Now, the question is whether the Sunnis will seek some post-election accommodation with the Shiites or will continue resisting the new U.S.-backed power structure. If they choose the latter, the election may end up locking the U.S. military into a long-term role as the military arm of a Shiite-dominated government given legitimacy by the ballot.
A second question is whether the Bush administration will interpret the relatively successful election in Iraq as reason to revive the neoconservative dream of spreading democracy by force throughout the Middle East.
If the Iraqi election ends up pushing the Bush administration into new foreign-policy adventures or keeps the U.S. military fighting in Iraq for the foreseeable future, the American people may look back at Jan. 30, 2005, as "a day to remember," though not as columnist Friedman had in mind.