Wednesday, December 08, 2004


Are We Winning In Iraq? Part II.

A few months back I discussed a dilemma facing U.S. decisionmakers. How are we measuring progress or failure in Iraq? Or, potentially more worrisome, *are we* measuring progress or failure in Iraq?

I raise the issue again because of some recent pieces in the media related to these questions.

First came the CIA cable on Iraq leaked to the New York Times (you can find it here, "free" registration required; schmucks). While the cable discussed some positive aspects in Iraq, everyone latched on to the negative assessments in the cable, and rightly so. I'm all for touting the good news that we're doing in Iraq-- and there is good news-- but when your primary intelligence agency has concerns, that's news.

I'm still a wee bit skeptical about the source of the story. There are three kinds of stories that leak in Washington:
-- Stories you don't want out there;
-- Stories you wouldn't mind being out there;
-- Stories you create in order to leak.

One would hope that a classified assessment of our progress in Iraq would be in the first category, but given the controversial nature of the war, I'm not surprised that some people hold the latter opinions. However, given the politicization and bureaucratic obstinance of the CIA, I don't think we can rule out the last possibility: that someone created this pessimistic report with the deliberate intent to have it leaked.

Interestingly enough, it was left to the humor blog Scrappleface yesterday to give the most honest assessment of the leaked cable. Even if the public wants to see it, they shouldn't see it, because the enemy gets to see it as well.

It's absolutely true that you need confidential communications on subjects like this between our intelligence organizations and the Commander-in-Chief. Simply put, it is not the first responsibility of the media-- let alone the American electorate's plebiscitary instincts-- to ensure the national security of the United States. It is the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief, and the elected representatives of the United States of America.

If, through looking at intelligence behind closed doors, these people determine that we are losing the war, then it is up to them to determine the appropriate strategy-- either fight the war more effectively, or end the war expeditiously. In determining the progress of the war for themselves, the American people can consider, through the media, many factors, but classified intelligence should not be one of them, unless that intelligence is deliberately declassified.

So, even if we don't have access to that intelligence, are there metrics we can use to judge for ourselves the progress of the war?

William F. Buckley wrote an editorial Tuesday that suggested a grading system for the upcoming Iraqi elections. A smooth, inclusive election gets an "A," a partial election with some holdouts gets a "B," etc. I think that this may be one useful metric for measuring success, but I caution anyone to not rely on it too heavily.

Why? Because the election is going to be a mess. There will be violence. There will be holdouts. There will be fraud. In that way, I guess, it'll look just like Chicago.

However, what's important for the election is that it's a first step, and as long as enough Iraqis agree with its legitimacy, than we will have achieved some progress in legitimizing a free Iraq government.

Are elections a panacea? Of course not. You can have "democratic" elections in a dictatorship. Likewise, you can have a dictatorship that respects the rights of individuals and offers many freedoms. One shortfall of big-L Liberal foreign policy in recent decades has been the tendency to fetishize elections. As long as Jimmy Carter is there to certify the ballots-- presto! We have ourselves democracy.

Nothing can be further from the truth. Iraq could have a perfectly successful vote, but as long as all those elected continue getting assassinated, bribed, and intimidated, the result is not a democracy. Failure to construct functional and respected civil institutions, like courts, ministries, free media, etc., will impede the development of democracy.

Given this situation, and the understanding of just how much is left to do in Iraq, I was partial to Charles Krauthammer's WaPo editorial on 26 November ("free" registration required; pudknockers).

In it, Krauthammer suggests that it's perfectly acceptable for Sunni, Shia or Kurds to sit out the election, even by province. He draws an analogy to the American Civil War, where for obvious reasons the Confederate states did not participate in the election of 1864, even though they were still recognized by Abraham Lincoln as being part of the Union.

While ideally we would see the participation of all affected parties in the Iraqi election, democracy does not involve compelling people to vote, or allowing illegitimate votes to be cast. Democracy is not a suicide pact.

My prediction? I don't really have one. I'm not an Iraq expert. I hope I'm well-read on the subject. And I've heard the personal opinions of a fair share of intelligent people who've been through there. But I'm reluctant to offer a definitive opinion on the subject.

If I could be permitted to go out on a limb, however, I'd say that, like everything else in Iraq, there will be a muddle-through in January. Some bright signs, some bad, and then we'll move on to the next milestone, whatever that is-- distressingly, I haven't heard much out of the Administration in the "what next?" category.

My sincerest hope is that the election motivates the Shia population to take a more active, productive role in Iraq's future. They, and to a lesser extent the well-defended Kurds, have a great stake in ensuring the breakup of the Sunni monopoly on power. I'm frustrated at what looks to be the abdication of leadership on the part of the Shia: it's their civil war, they should be more eager to fight it.

Such frustration leads me to two possible conclusions: it either reinforces my earlier judgment that I don't know enough about Iraq to form a complete opinion, or worse, I do know enough, which means the Shia are sitting the democratic process, and war, out for an unknown reason.

Is it because, as Krauthammer speculates, the Shia are worried about being betrayed again by the United States? Or, is it more worrisome: the Shia are expecting Iraq to break apart, so why bother participating in a process to no end? The southern Shiites might have written off the Sunnis and Kurds, and decided-- intentionally, or by accident-- to place their bets on independence.

I guess we'll see soon enough how this all turns out.

If the Shia's, who (by some estimates) make up over 60% of the Iraqi population, are not engaged in the democratic system then there is no democratic system period. The people have to want it for it to work. If they don't want it for whatever reason (fear, pessimism) then why force elections? Is a forced election democracy? Is democracy even the solution there? Its the only product we sell, so we will try and make it fit. But its beginning to look like we are selling windsurfers to eskimos when they need snowmobiles.

If 60% sit out, of course that's not a viable democracy. But that's not really at issue. The question is how many, if any, Shia sit out.

For example, if Sadr's "followers" sit out, and actively work against the process (protests, ballot rigging, etc.), but Sistani's "follwers" do not, then we can't necessarily dismiss the end result as being "undemocratic."

On average, less than 60% of eligible voters vote in America-- that low rate of participation doesn't make our elections any less democratic (okay, it does, but not in the sense that functional legitimacy is undermined).

As for whether or not democracy is appropriate for Iraq, the question is, what's the alternative? And would be willing to advocate for that alternative?

There has been a lot of debate in the conservative press-- you see it in the Krauthammer piece-- about whether accepting less than the Bush-ideal of democratic freedom is acceptable, i.e., the "strongman" theory of governance in Iraq.

Given the military situation, Iraq will by necessity be less free than any comparable Western democratic society for the foreseeable future. While I don't dismiss the strongman paradigm as a transitional phase for Iraq (it's worked in East Asia-- South Korea, Taiwan, etc.), my concern is that by "lowering the bar," we communicate weakness to the terrorists (i.e., we're telling them we're willing to settle for less than victory as we define it-- like the old joke about negotiating price with a whore).

By conceding that even putting Iraq on the track to eventual democracy is too difficult, by cutting our losses now in the hopes of turning Iraq over to a Saddam-lite (secret police, no public freedoms-- but no death chambers or gassing your own people), that may not only harm our strategy in Iraq, but also the larger Middle East. We'll have feet of clay AND our moral arguments will be seen as empty. We talk about freedom, but we aren't willing to fight for it when it comes to the brown peoples of the world.

Also, given America's traditional short-term perspective, even if we say "We're committed to long-term democracy, but we're willing to cut corners now," we'll give up that much sooner. To offer an analogy, in some ways, by throwing our pants over the fence, we've committed ourselves to climbing the fence to go get our pants. If we decide that, in the meantime, we'll be okay without pants-- it's warm out, there's no one looking-- we may find ourselves thinking life without pants is good enough. Eventually, however, it'll get cold, and we'll find ourselves in the snow with not knickers on.

Then again, we may decide that the fence is simply too high to climb, and have no other choice. That's the risk of war.

Unfortunately, we walk away from Iraq, we may be better off, but we'd still be giving up the Iraqis. I don't know if that's a fair trade.
"I'm frustrated at what looks to be the abdication of leadership on the part of the Shia: it's their civil war, they should be more eager to fight it."

"...the Shia are sitting the democratic process, and war, out for an unknown reason."

Sorta, can you please say more about what you think the Shia haven't done that they ought to, or why you think they might not support an election certain to give them majority power?

I'll do what I can to give you an explanation once I know what you're referring to. (The let-downs on the Shia side - at least the ones I'm thinking of - have at bottom been our own fault.)
And I'm sorry I just called you Sorta, big guy... I was just at Sortapundit's blog. That was then, this is now.

No need to apologize, I've been called worse!

I'm not the most coherent writer, but I think I suggested at least two reasons above: the Shia feeling of potential betrayal (why sign up for a sinking ship), and the possibility that some Shia think that it's possible that they can sign up for their own destiny.

In a way, these two are related to the same catalyst: the departure of U.S. troops. The first reason would presuppose an unwanted departure (or outright abdandonment), which could result in the ascendancy of the militant Sunni elements, with bad prospects for the Shia.

However, I think that the second reason is a bit more realistic, mostly because, unlike in 1991, the Sunni minority is not a unified bloc harnessed by Saddam. Meaning, our forces have done a lot of damage to the insurgency, and the Sunni militants remaining probably could not resist the Shia after the U.S. left.

What's interesting there is that the U.S. could actually find itself in a few years victorious against the Sunni insurgency, leave Iraq in success, only to see the Shia step into the power vacuum leftover.

I have no fundamental problems with that possibility-- however, the concern would be that no Arab nation in the Middle East has done itself proud in respecting the rights of minorities. Hell, no Arab nation has done itself proud respecting the rights of *anyone*.

The long-term solution to Iraq-- if there is to be a single nation known as "Iraq"-- involves carrots and sticks. Carrots that suggest it's more productive for all three ethnic groups to stick together in a bad neighborhood, and sticks that leverage a balance-of-power within Iraq. I'm hoping the latter involves a more peaceful, federal structure, but I'm not so naive as to ignore the possiblity of checks-and-balances purchased at gunpoint.

Bottom line: I'm frustrated not because I don't think there's a reason why the Shia have been sitting out-- I'm frustrated because I don't know that reason, and I don't know if anyone really does.

Of course, in the end, I'm not at all unhappy with the Shia sitting out. It sure beats them conducting an armed resistance ala the Baathists and foreign fighters. If a grumbling indifference is the best we get, I'll take it and count our blessings.
I don't disagree that its not a bad thing for the war, that the Shia's are sitting in the corner of the gymnasium and quietly mumbling to themselves. But it does no good for the prospect of Democracy in that nation if the majority of your population sits out of the process as a block. Its not like in the US. You are right, the US gets 50% of eligble voters to actually vote (at best) but the difference is that we have no single group of people sitting out. It would be like having all females in the US collectively sitting out an election.....but worse. If providing a Democratic government is why we are there, we must do something to engage these people or the result will be one nation split into 3 or 4 or 5 with borders disputes for eternity.
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