On War #103
February 9, 2005

More Election Ju-ju

By William S. Lind

[The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Lind, writing in his personal capacity. They do not reflect the opinions or policy positions of the Free Congress Foundation, its officers, board or employees, or those of Kettle Creek Corporation.

Bands played, children sang, millions of Iraqis turned out to vote and the whole world hailed Iraq’s election as an historic epiphany. Success in the voting process means that Iraq will emerge as a peaceful, democratic state. America has won its war.

Sorry, but I don’t buy it.

The problem in Iraq is still exactly what it was before the election: there is no state. Elections alone do not create a state, as we saw not long ago in Afghanistan. An occupying American army can protect an election, but it cannot create a state.

Yes, millions voted. But the Kurds voted for an independent Kurdistan, the Shiites voted for a Shiite-controlled Islamic republic (if any outside power won the election, it was Iran, not the U.S.) and the Sunnis stayed home and cleaned their weapons, getting ready for the next round of war. The insurgents know that history is made not by majorities who vote but by minorities who fight. The prospect of a Shiite-run Iraq helps the Sunni insurgents more than it hurts them.

While the elections themselves did not re-create a state in Iraq, they may have opened a door to doing so – a narrow door, but one Iraq and the U.S. might pass through if both prove more adroit than they have in the past. The key to success – and success remains less likely than failure – is for both the new Iraqi government and Washington to understand that the critical issue is legitimacy. No Iraqi regime can retain legitimacy if it is seen as a creature of the United States.

In specific terms, what does that mean? Iraq’s new government should take steps along the following lines:

  • Refuse to move into Baghdad’s infamous Green Zone, or anywhere else where it would depend on American troops for its security. A Shiite-dominated Iraqi government can be safe enough in Sadr City.

  • Exclude Americans from all participation in writing Iraq’s new constitution.

  • Separate Iraq’s new army and police from the Americans. If they need advisors, get them from some country other than the U.S. or Britain. Order the new army’s equipment from Europe, Russia or China. Get rid of the American-style uniforms. Appearances are immensely important to the question of legitimacy.

  • Order all American troops out of Fallujah so the local citizens can finally come home. Iraqis, not Americans, should rebuild the city. This would be an important message to the Sunnis.

  • Sit down with as many of the insurgents as possible and try to cut a deal. Make it clear that Iraq’s new government will eventually order the Americans out, and be willing to negotiate the timetable with the Sunni insurgents. So long as American troops are present, the insurgency will continue.

  • Find as many issues as possible on which to disagree with the Americans, do so publicly and force the Americans to back down. The more often the new government stands up to the Americans, the greater its legitimacy will be.

For its part, Washington could help this process along. Quietly encourage the new Iraqi government to override us. Complain loudly about how it is disregarding our advice. Most importantly, stop saying that American policy is to “kill or capture” every Iraqi who dares resist us. Don’t try to impose a military defeat on Iraq’s Sunnis, forcing them to come crawling to us and beg for mercy. That is never going to happen. Our goal should be peace, not victory. In much of Sunni Iraq, that means American troops should pull out. Quietly, we should also be talking to insurgent elements, trying to make deals.

Will any of this happen? As I have said before, Ayatollah Sistani seems like that rarest of men in today’s world, a wise man. The Iraqi government he controls may take steps along these lines. Will Washington? Almost certainly not. Nor will our senior military leaders; they pride themselves on not being Machiavellian. But one silver lining is that genuine American anger toward the new Iraqi government is as useful as feigned anger. And our political and military leaders are both dumb enough to get angry at any real signs of Iraqi independence.

Actions along these lines could create chance – just a chance – of rebuilding a real Iraqi state. If so, Iraq’s election might have marked a turning point. If not, all that will come out of them is an intensification of the civil war that is already under way in Iraq, plus a greater likelihood that war will spread beyond Iraq as Sunnis throughout the Arab world rally against a triumphant Shiism. That remains the more likely outcome.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation

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