Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Plan C!

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously quipped, "freedom is untidy" in response to questions about the looting and chaos that erupted in Iraq post invasion. In some sense, he was right, though not in the sense that he intended - that freedom leads to lawlessness. Freedom and democracy, or at least elections, are messy in that they can yield unpredictable results in terms of ruling regime.*

This is a lesson that the Bush administration has been slow to learn. It has repeatedly failed to recognize, willfully or gullibly, that elections themselves are no guarantor that a given preferred candidate will prevail. Shockingly, foreign constituents don't always see eye to eye with the Bush team, and sometimes even elect parties/leaders that the Bush team is at odds with. Frequently in fact.

This pattern of disappointment and surprise was duplicated in a series of elections in Iraq in which the Bush team expected, each time, a strong showing for Chalabi and Allawi (the former couldn't muster enough votes for a single seat in parliament). Then, against the advice of Israelis and its Palestinian allies alike, the Bush team insisted on holding the Gaza elections that were supposed to marginalize Hamas in favor of Fatah. Hamas won big of course, an outcome that surprised few - except the Bush administration. Later, the administration neglected building relationships with the eventual victorious candidates/parties in Pakistan under the assumption that Musharraff would perform well enough to hold on to power via the ballot box. Wrong again.

In Iraq, one of those messy, unpredictable events is looming on the horizon yet again. A prospect that must, by now, strike fear in the hearts of Bush administration policy makers. The background goes something like this: The Sunni Awakenings/CLC groups, whose recent cooperation with US forces against al-Qaeda in Iraq has greatly reduced violence, have been demanding a voice in the political apparatus (they have none due to their prior boycott of elections). In fact, they have threatened violence and a resumption of hostilities if they aren't given a voice - via elections, or otherwise.

So the Bush administration has been pressuring the Iraqi government to hold regional elections out of fear that security gains will melt away if it loses its Sunni allies. Problem is, our strongest Shiite allies in the Iraqi government, ISCI and Maliki's Dawa party, have been steadily working to put off regional elections (including vetoing the most recent legislation) because those parties fear they will lose considerable ground to the popular Sadrist current (which also sat out the last round of regional elections in some areas).

The Bush team wishes to prevent a Sadrist ascendancy mostly due to that group's opposition to the occupation and its position on foreign oil investment. Quite a pickle. So what to do? To its credit, the administraiton is not repeating its past mistakes in terms of collecting/manipulating data that predicts victory for their candidates despite the preponderence of countervailing evidence. Instead, the Bush administration has, at last, developed an appreciation of empirical evidence and adopted a proactive approach.

First, it supported a military campaign to expel the Sadrists from Basra, and weaken their position in Sadr city. While successful in some limited sense, no military campaign can really defeat the Sadrists absent truly horrific levels of violence (it is a political/religious/social movement that numbers in the millions, deeply ingrained in Iraqi society with a decades' long history, and a centuries' long tradition). Disruption is possible, perhaps enough to keep the Sadrist trend and its militia away from the vote casting/gathering/counting process, and that might help ISCI/Maliki manipulate the results in their favor.

Not wishing to take any chances, however, there has been recent talk of banning the Sadrist trend from participating in upcoming elections because, get this, that group has a militia. Problem is, um, which political groups in Iraq don't have militias. Perhaps sensing the weakness of that justification, and fearing the widespread backlash that would result from de facto disenfranchisement, a third path has emerged, or re-emerged (which will likely rely on gains from the first prong above):

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says provincial elections due later this year will be staggered over several days to ensure the safety of voters and prevent the rigging of results. [...]

A statement by al-Maliki's office quoted him as saying in a meeting Sunday with the U.N. chief envoy in Iraq Staffan de Mistura that his government is "determined" to create a "suitable" climate for the vote to ensure its "integrity."

Yeah. Just give the Maliki more time to count the votes to "ensure" the proper outcome. As Juan Cole observes, many Iraqi political groups remain unconvinced by Maliki's new found commitment to electoral integrity:

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that a political fracas is brewing over the provincial elections now scheduled for November (I had thought, October?). Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had announced last Sunday that the government will hold the elections for provincial councils over several days so as to guarantee their uprightness, to ensure that they are not interfered with, and to guarantee the safety of the voters.

Umar Sattar reports from Baghdad that Iyad Allawi, leader of the Iraqi National List and former appointed PM, has expressed doubts about whether the elections will be fraudulent.

Also, Salim Abdallah of the Iraqi Accord Front [Sunni fundamentalist] said, "The Front would prefer that the elections be held in all the provinces on the same day if it is desired that their probity be guaranteed. But the government is the decider in setting the election dates, according to the election law that it presented to parliament." He worried that the results of the election in one province might affect those in another province if they were not held simultaneously. He said he hoped that the United Nations would be deeply involved in the holding of the provincial elections, and that Iraqi military forces would be careful to remain neutral.

Speaker of the Iraqi parliament Mahmud al-Mashhadani also came out against holding the elections over several days. He argued that it would be easier to arrange security through curfews if the elections were held on the same day throughout the provinces.

Iyad Allawi sent a letter to several governments and to the UN, expressing his fears that the elections may be fraudulent.

Now who said the Bush administration doesn't learn from past mistakes?

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