Iraq: After the Elections, Then What?

Barring last-minute complications, Iraq’s first democratic election will take place Sunday. Several interesting op-eds in today’s papers discuss the next phase, especially the status of Coalition forces afterwards.

Former Secretaries of State Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz have a piece in WaPo entitled, “Results, Not Timetables, Matter In Iraq.”

The debate on Iraq is taking a new turn. The Iraqi elections scheduled for Jan. 30, only recently viewed as a culmination, are described as inaugurating a civil war. The timing and the voting arrangements have become controversial. All this is a way of foreshadowing a demand for an exit strategy, by which many critics mean some sort of explicit time limit on the U.S. effort.

We reject this counsel. The implications of the term “exit strategy” must be clearly understood; there can be no fudging of consequences. The essential prerequisite for an acceptable exit strategy is a sustainable outcome, not an arbitrary time limit. For the outcome in Iraq will shape the next decade of American foreign policy. A debacle would usher in a series of convulsions in the region as radicals and fundamentalists moved for dominance, with the wind seemingly at their backs. Wherever there are significant Muslim populations, radical elements would be emboldened. As the rest of the world related to this reality, its sense of direction would be impaired by the demonstration of American confusion in Iraq. A precipitate American withdrawal would be almost certain to cause a civil war that would dwarf Yugoslavia’s, and it would be compounded as neighbors escalated their current involvement into full-scale intervention.

Agreed. Whatever one’s views on whether the war was worth fighting, the bottom line is that we’re there. As Colin Powell reportedly counseled beforehand, “we broke it, we bought it.” Had our objective merely been the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime, we could have appointed an interim government and withdrawn over a year ago. Our stated objectives, however, were much grander. Kissinger and Shultz, too, warn that mere majority rule is not democracy:

Western democracy developed in homogeneous societies; minorities found majority rule acceptable because they had a prospect of becoming majorities, and majorities were restrained in the exercise of their power by their temporary status and by judicially enforced minority guarantees. Such an equation does not operate where minority status is permanently established by religious affiliation and compounded by ethnic differences and decades of brutal dictatorship. Majority rule in such circumstances is perceived as an alternative version of the oppression of the weak by the powerful. In multiethnic societies, minority rights must be protected by structural and constitutional safeguards. Federalism mitigates the scope for potential arbitrariness of the numerical majority and defines autonomy on a specific range of issues.

The reaction to intransigent Sunni brutality and the relative Shiite quiet must not tempt us into identifying Iraqi legitimacy with unchecked Shiite rule. The American experience with Shiite theocracy in Iran since 1979 does not inspire confidence in our ability to forecast Shiite evolution or the prospects of a Shiite-dominated bloc extending to the Mediterranean. A thoughtful American policy will not mortgage itself to one side in a religious conflict fervently conducted for 1,000 years.

Quite right. Fortunately, early indications are that the most prominent Shiites recognize this and are prepared to govern in a non-sectarian, inclusive manner.

Retired intelligence officer and military analyst Ralph Peters‘ column in today’s NY Post is simply titled, “Breakthroughs.” He echoes some thoughts I posted yesterday about what the recent condemnation of the elections by Zarqawi and Sadr means about their standing in Iraqi public opinion. He concludes,

What’s really happening in Iraq? Contrary to media depictions, suicide bombings and other attacks are going down, not up. The terrorists are running short on resources. The bad boys are getting popped — not least because Iraqis, sick of the violence, turn them in.

And the leading terrorist in Iraq just told the common people what he thinks of them: He should decide their future, not their ballots. Think that’s going to play well with the masses? Does anyone except The New York Times believe that a Jordanian- born, Sunni Muslim terrorist is going to convince Iraq’s majority Shi’a Arabs or the Kurds to throw up their hands, stay home on Election Day and hand him power?

Rarely has the contrast been so clear between the forces of freedom and those of oppression. Last Thursday, America’s president offered the world a courageous vision for the future. Over the weekend, the top terrorist in Iraq insisted that the world should return to a cruel and savage past. There you have the basic conflict of the 21st century.

Iraq’s election won’t produce perfect results. But the issue is no longer whether the people will vote, but how many millions of voters will risk their lives to go to the polls. Those who still warn that Iraq’s elections are misguided are on the side of the terrorists. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi thinks so. And he’s right.

Finally, Yochi Dreazen has an interesting piece in today’s WSJ ($) entitled, “How A U.S. Pullout From Iraq Might Occur.” He’s unconvinced that U.S. presence in Iraq can be sustained for the long term.

A rare point of agreement among Iraq’s feuding sectarian groups is the importance of ending U.S. military occupation. The United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite political collective expected to dominate the Jan. 30 voting, has a plank in its platform promising to demand a timetable for withdrawal. Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said recently that he had already asked U.S. commanders to “accelerate the drawdown and gradual withdrawal of the multinational forces.”

Iraq’s largest and most-influential Sunni political group, meanwhile, recently said it would abandon its election boycott in exchange for a pullout timetable, and has made withdrawal a condition for rejoining Iraq’s political process.

A pullout request could put the Bush administration in a bind. While Americans see a pullout as damaging to Iraq’s security, they also feel compelled to abide by any decision made by a democratically elected government of Iraq. The likely compromise: Shiite leaders privately acknowledge that the country’s security personnel aren’t yet up to defeating the insurgency, and say they are willing to accept an American presence until more Iraqi security forces come on line. The administration expects the Shiites would accept vague promises to withdraw rather than a firm time line.

The administration is almost certain right in this regard. The elections will immediately put an Iraqi face on the security apparatus. However fervently the government might wish to get American troops out of the country, though, they will have to realize that they simply can’t handle the fight on their own yet. An American withdrawal would be popular in the short term but suicidal in the medium term.

My guess is that the American presence in Iraq will be down to a garrison force somewhere between a year and eighteen months from now, as Iraqi forces are properly trained and equipped to provide security on their own.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    Iraqis want their sovereignty back. One of the things that should happen after the election is to end the right of the coalition to arrest and detain Iraqi citizens independent of the Iraqi judiciary. This is a big issue to them and causes much anger. If we can find a way to do this it’ll make life a lot easier in the end so we don’t still have a de facto occupation.

  2. McGehee says:

    One of the things that should happen after the election is to end the right of the coalition to arrest and detain Iraqi citizens independent of the Iraqi judiciary. This is a big issue to them and causes much anger. If we can find a way to do this it’ll make life a lot easier in the end so we don’t still have a de facto occupation.

    Can’t argue with that.

  3. DC Loser says:

    And sign a Status of Forces Agreement with the elected government to establish rules for presence of US forces.