Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The SOTU Wants to Eat Your Brain

I agree with Hilzoy's general point that, compared to Bush's prior speeches, last night's was among the better in terms of performance. This is admittedly faint praise, especially when factoring in the low expectations going in. But it's a relative grading scale. The speech was underwhelming in terms of impact and inspiration, yet delivered with a certain level of workmanlike competence, if lacking in oratory flourish. Mere rote competence is something of an accomplishment for the notoriously tongue tied Bush, however.

Sadly, though, Bush managed to re-animate some of the familiar, zombie-like memes about Iraq that simply refuse to die despite their lack of correlation to reality. One such hard-to-kill counterfactual lurks in the following excerpt:

Despite endless threats from the killers in their midst, nearly 12 million Iraqi citizens came out to vote in a show of hope and solidarity we should never forget. [emphasis added]
Solidarity? I hate to get hung up on one word in a long speech, but this one stands out for being not just a simple exaggeration or useful embellishment. The concept is diametrically opposed to the actual event described.

12 million Iraqis came out to vote along remarkably strict ethnic/sectarian lines in a show of communalism and zero-sum factionalist thinking. Shiites voted only for Shiites, Kurds for Kurds and Sunnis for Sunnis. This ballot box discipline was driven by the twin engines of tribalism and fear. Fear of what fate might befall the voters should rival factions gain in power at their expense. In this sense, the elections did not serve as an event fostering a sense of national unity or "solidarity," but rather an expression of the ever-increasing divisions and distrust plaguing Iraqi society post-regime change.

I predicted as much back in December 2004, before the first of Iraq's three electoral events in 2005:
It is dangerous to conflate one election with democracy, and it is even more perilous to assume that the problems that plague Iraq will disappear like so many ballots descending into boxes.

Iraq is uniquely problematic in some respects in that the elections themselves will bring to a head many of the simmering ethnic tensions that have thus far remained under wraps - while the insurgency has raged on in its stead. In an inversion of conventional wisdom, elections could be the precursor to civil war between the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds who will each be vying for the mantle of power that elections will bestow.

...The problem is, if the Shiite leadership does not take an enlightened approach to power sharing, the Kurds won't accept the legitimacy of the newly formed government and may act on long held nationalistic desires to secede and form their own state. So too, the Sunnis will reject Shiite dominance and continue to fight in some form or another, continuing to destabilize Iraq.

The quandary presented by modern day Iraq is that there are bitter and historical grievances to settle on the one side of the ethnic divide, and a loss of long held political power on the other....In order for peace and cooperation to triumph over sectarian violence, not only must [the Shiites] agree to some form of power sharing that respects minority rights and sensibilities, [Shiite leaders] must continue to command the obedience of the vast Shiite population who might be tempted by voices calling for reprisals and total control - voices made more alluring by centuries of violence and frustration. Even if successful in [their] own internal balancing act, [Shiite leaders] would also need cooperative moderate Sunni and Kurdish counterparts who can maintain the support of their respective populations as they attempt to follow [the Shiite] lead, assuming [the Shiites] chart such a course in the first place which is not guaranteed. A precarious situation indeed.
These observations and admonitions were repeated prior to the constitutional referendum (guest stint at Belgravia Dispatch) and December 2005 election as well. Yet Bush would have us believe that these troubling expressions of the communal aspirations run amok in a deeply fractured society were some moment of "solidarity."

Speaking of that democratically elected, unity government, the New York Times reports on the level of dysfunction:

Parliament in recent months has been at a standstill. Nearly every session since November has been adjourned because as few as 65 members made it to work, even as they and the absentees earned salaries and benefits worth about $120,000.

Part of the problem is security, but Iraqi officials also said they feared that members were losing confidence in the institution and in the country’s fragile democracy. As chaos has deepened, Parliament’s relevance has gradually receded.

Deals on important legislation, most recently the oil law, now take place largely out of public view, with Parliament — when it meets — rubber-stamping the final decisions. As a result, officials said, vital legislation involving the budget, provincial elections and amendments to the Constitution remain trapped in a legislative process that processes nearly nothing. American officials long hoped that Parliament could help foster dialogue between Iraq’s increasingly fractured ethnic and religious groups, but that has not happened, either.[...]

Some of Iraq’s more seasoned leaders say attendance has been undermined by a widening sense of disillusionment about Parliament’s ability to improve Iraqis’ daily life. The country’s dominant issue, security, is almost exclusively the policy realm of the American military and the office of the prime minister.
The question is, how much more of this solidarity and democracy can Iraq take?

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