Iraqi Election Triumphalism

Stephen Bainbridge warns that we should be cautious before getting too giddy over yesterday’s elections:

Who can deny that the election today in Iraq is a good thing? The voting reportedly went remarkably well. Yet, the triumphalism I’m seeing on the war blogs and hearing on talk radio strikes me as unwarranted. Democracy is a lot more than elections. The old Soviet Union had elections, after all. Iran has elections all the time, which lately have been electing hard line Islamofascists, a point that strikes me as very relevant to today’s events. Heck, even Hitler got elected back in 1933. So let’s not count our chickens before they hatch. If five years from now, Iraq is a peaceful, multi-ethnic federal state, we can all look back on today fondly. If five years from now, Iraq is run by a pro-Iranian bunch of Shia mullahs and riven by ethnic strife, today will have meant exactly squat. The mission is not accomplished.

DailyKos’ mcjoan makes a similar point:

Can all the purple fingers in Iraq solve the question of Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish integration? Given the level of distrust, violence, and hatred we’ve seen thus far, I’d say not yet.

I agree fully that “Democracy is a lot more than elections” and that there’s still a lot of things that could go wrong. I’ve said so repeatedly since the war started. But, with those important caveats noted, reacting to events and trends is why we all gather around the computer to read blogs.

The nature of punditry is reaction to the moment. While “wait and see” is almost always good advice, it makes for some very uninteresting commentary. This is true regardless of topic.

The Indianapolis Colts are 13-0. Should we wait to see whether they win the Super Bowl before talking about how well their season is going? For that matter, we won’t know if they’re as good as the 1950s Cleveland Browns, 1960s Packers, 1970s Steelers and Cowboys, 1980s 49ers, 1990s Cowboys, or the Patriots of the last few years for quite some time. It’s rather silly to talk about what a good team they are until all the facts are in.

President Bush’s poll numbers are low (although rising slightly). But, after all, he still has another three years plus remaining in his term. And, really, proper judgment of the policies he’s put into place will be made by historians decades from now. Should we refrain from discussing them in the heat of the moment?

Furthermore, the Iraqi elections are of a different piece than those of the old Soviet Union or present day Iran. The people of the USSR were not free to choose from competing candidates; the Iraqis were. The mullahs restrict the candidates and parties which may run in Iran and there’s good reason to believe that the vote counting itself is rigged; neither of those are true except perhaps at the margins in Iraq. The German elections of 1933 were generally free, although accompanied by substantial thuggery and intimidation on the part of the Nazis and coupled with the outlawing of a popular opposition party after the Reichstag fire. The Iraq elections are rather the opposite: there was massive voter turnout in the face of thuggery and intimidation on the part of those trying to derail the elections.

I agree, too, that it would be a bad thing indeed if “Iraq is run by a pro-Iranian bunch of Shia mullahs and riven by ethnic strife” down the road. I discussed that possibility just yesterday morning. There are, however, several provisions of the Iraqi constitution that make it difficult for that to happen. We’ll know more about the outcome of the election in a few days, after ballots are counted and the wrangling necessary to put together a governing coalition gets started. It looks incredibly unlikely that an extremist government will emerge from yesterday’s results. Whether one emerges down the line has a lot to do with how well the first one does at meeting the needs of the people, not the least of which is security.

So Bainbridge is right–we won’t know the outcome for some time. But political junkies, like sports fans, don’t want to wait around for several years to see how it comes out–we want to talk about it now and reserve the right to change our minds as events unfold. I’ve done that several times during this NFL season, depending on the game-to-game fortunes of the Cowboys. Similarly, my confidence as to our ability to pull off this grand endeavor in Iraq has had highs and lows; it’s pretty high at the moment.

Bainbridge closes his post with this popular refrain:

BTW, speaking of the mission, if the money and manpower put into Iraq over the last three years so that today’s vote could happen had been put into Afghanistan, would we have caught Osama by now? Just wondering.

This is unknowable, I suppose. My strong guess, however, is No. The best chance to catch Osama in Afghanistan was in the hours after the 9/11 attacks. By waiting so long to launch military action, our opportunity to catch him was greatly diminished.

Of course, a dead or captured Osama would have virtually no impact on the state of terrorism in the world. As we’ve seen time and again, killing or capturing “top al Qaeda officials” just causes the promotion of slighly lower ranked al Qaeda officials.

A secular democracy in the heart of the Arab world, on the other hand–however far we are from achieving that–would have a huge ripple effect across the region. I’m far from sure that we will achieve that goal and doubt that I could have been convinced to commence this war with that as the primary mission. If successful, however, it will be among the major turning points in history.

Update: Some sort of TypePad glitch has hidden or deleted Bainbridge’s last week of posts and is preventing him from posting today. (via email)

Corrections: Two minor proofreading errors that dramatically altered the meaning of the post have been corrected from the original after emailed alerts from readers.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Democracy, Terrorism, Uncategorized, US Constitution, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. Boyd says:

    It looks incredibly likely that an extremist government will emerge from yesterday’s results.

    Are you missing an “un-” from the beginning of “likely,” James?

  2. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘The old Soviet Union had elections, after all. Iran has elections all the time’

    As always the term ‘free’ elections escapes these people.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Boyd: Yep. Correction noted.

  4. brian says:

    If getting “elected” means getting the majority of the vote among the candidates on the ballot, then Hitler did not get elected in 1933.

  5. James Joyner says:

    brian: But “elected” doesn’t mean that in most parliamentary systems. The Nazis won a plurality and put together a majority coalition more-or-less legally. It was the actions used to consolidate the presidency and the chancelllorship and then establish martial law that were illegal and dictatorial.

  6. Bithead says:

    The nature of punditry is reaction to the moment. While “wait and see” is almost always good advice, it makes for some very uninteresting commentary. This is true regardless of topic.

    I’d suggest that there’s a deeper angle one could take here… and should… that being that those now bleating ‘wait and see’ have an awful lot invested in the failure of the US and it’s allies in Iraq.

    They’re still hoping some miricle will snach defeat from the jaws of victory.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Bithead: There may be some for who that’s true but Bainbridge certainly isn’t one of them.

  8. Bithead says:

    I’m not so sure, anymore about that James.
    I’ve noted a disturbing tred with him of late, that leads me to question his bona fides as regards all this. His comment as quoted, for example, implying a mis-direction of forces. He’s not ‘just asking’, he’s accusing, which is an altogether different matter.

    Finally, I note that the article you link to is no longer up, on the home page, and the link doesn’t work.