Iraq Elections in Comparative Perspective

Christopher Hitchens has an, as usual, brilliant essay explaining “Why Iraq’s vote is not like Palestine’s.” It’s nuanced and information packed but this paragraph stands out:

The so-called “insurgency” in Iraq does not have a tithe of the historic justification for the resistance in Palestine. Nor can it ever hope to speak, even by proxy, for an Iraqi majority. (To take just one overlooked example, the majority of Kurds are formally Sunni.) Its conduct is a continuation of a reign of terror that lasted three decades. Its victory would mean misery and death on a colossal scale. It and its murderers must and will be worn down, by sheer, adamant intransigence. The newly elected leader of the Palestinians has said to the suicide-mongers, in effect, Do not be the last ones to die for a mistake. This message will be driven home in Iraq, as well.

Meanwhile, David Brooks [RSS] informs is Iraq “is not Vietnam.”

The terrorists may be good at chopping off heads, but they have not won the people’s minds. A desire for democracy runs deep in Iraq, along with an angry hunger for the rule of law.

Eighty-three slates of candidates have been formed, despite the terrorists’ threats. More than 7,000 people are running for office. At least 100 newspapers stir a lively cauldron of democratic ideas and debate. The newspaper Sabah recently published a poll of 4,974 Iraqis living in and around Baghdad. Nearly 88 percent support military action against the terrorists. A survey by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies suggests that the insurgents’ archfoe, the prime minister Ayad Allawi, is the most popular prospective leader in the land.


In Iraq, the most effective advocates for democracy are precisely the traditional Muslim leaders. The Shiite clerics in Najaf, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have learned from the failure of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran. As Reuel Marc Gerecht argues in his monograph, “The Islamic Paradox,” their commitment to democracy is real, the product of a genuine intellectual revolution. The Sistani-backed slate will probably lead the coming vote. The people on that slate are not turbaned Thomas Jeffersons. They are skeptical, to say the least, about Americans. They are retrograde when it comes to women’s rights. But they have embraced political freedom and one person one vote. They have prevented a civil war by calling on Shiite forces to not seek revenge against Sunni terrorists. They will bring leading Sunnis into the constitution-writing process, even if Sunnis themselves are unable to vote.

Ralph Peters just hopes Iraq isn’t Pakistan:

Pakistan has been the greatest disappointment among the major states that tried democracy. It should have been a contender, having begun its nationhood with a legacy of British legal traditions, an educated political class and a vigorous press. Instead, Pakistan became a swamp of corruption, demagogy and hatred. Those who believe in democracy need to recognize an ugly truth: Military government remains Pakistan’s final hope — and even that hope is a slight one.

This is painful for us to accept. Well-intentioned Americans with no personal experience of the outrageous criminality that came to characterize every one of Pakistan’s major political parties rebel against the notion that any military government can ever be good. Certainly, military regimes are despicable. Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s government, albeit imperfect, is the sole exception in the world today.

Pakistan is an artificial country, cobbled together from ethnically different parts and flooded early on with Muslim refugees from India — who still form a distinct social and political bloc. The Pathans of the northwest frontier have more in common with their Afghan neighbors than with the Sindhis on the other side of the Indus River, whose culture reflects that of Mughal India. The Punjabis of Lahore inhabit a different civilization from the tribesmen of Baluchistan. Pakistan’s Kashmiris are something else entirely. Instead of seeking unity, Pakistan’s political parties exploited internal divisions for short-term advantage. Well-educated political families, such as the Bhuttos, took a page from the Chinese nationalists, telling Westerners exactly what we wanted to hear. Preaching democracy and the rule of law abroad, they looted shamelessly at home. And they blamed the colonial powers, then America, for the destruction of a once-promising society. No matter their political allegiance, Pakistan’s party bosses stole everything in sight, reducing the country to stinging poverty and stunning violence. It wasn’t just the remote frontiers that became lawless, but even Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.

The pieces are all interesting reading, offering both pragmatic skepticism at what can be accomplished and hope that Iraq will be exceptional.

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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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    For once I share Ralph Peter’s pessimism about Pakistan. I fear that our betting on Pakistan in GWOT is going to backfire bigtime.

  2. reliapundit says:

    pakistan – from its inception – tolerated vast lawless areas, the so-called “tribal areas,” and was founded in religious INTOLERANCE.

    if i may use a crude metaphor: these roots have rotted and now the tree is dying.

    nehru had championed a pluralistic and tolerant greater india. he failed.

    so, pakistan must (and subsequently bangladesh and kashmir also) wallow in the muck of islamism, and its concomittant xenophobia and intolerance.

    since prosperity is the by-product of liberty these regions have suggered materially, as well.

    as for peters’ pessimism: as long as musharraf lives we have an ally. the news that the leader of a recent assassination attempt on his life escaped is not enheartening. it indicates incompetence or infiltration and intrigue. in either case: it does NOT bode well.

    we have contingencies in place for their nukes, but not for contravening the Jihadists from using pakistan as an even bigger base of operations.

    our presence in afghanistan, and india’s own interets, will help contain them in that event.

    IMO: the instablity of pakistan is all the more reason for fostering regime change in iran and syria. we need to destroy the state sponsors of terror inorder to win a war of attrition.

    an independent iraq – after the election – might declare war on syria or iran, and we could enter as their ally; THEIR GROUND TROOPS AND OUR AIR-POWER.

    we’d win. i don’t see this happening until after we evict syria from lebanon, or around august.

  3. anjin-san says:

    Just curious, how could the Iraqi insurgency have the “historic justification” of the resistance in Palestine? After all, Iraq has been occupied by our forces for a very short time. The argument seems rather silly.