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December 21, 2004

The Iraqi Elections: 'Ere We Go Again...

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose...

Or is it just deja vu all over again? To hear the press a week before the Afghan elections, we were headed into a maelstrom of bombings, beheadings, and more miserable failure. Fortunately, the Afghans weren't reading the US papers: despite threats of car bombs and widespread terrorist attacks, they turned out by the millions to vote. Of course, the lamestream media saw nothing newsworthy in the overturn of all their fondest hopes.

A mere two months later, we approach elections in Iraq.

With the recent salutary lesson of Afghanistan firmly consigned to the dustbin of history, some are again ready with the gloom-and-doom forecast. Greg Djerejian excerpts a John Burns piece quoting an Iraqi official:

The election, he said, was a "jungle of ambiguity" where hopes ride on a sea of uncertainties, not the least of them the degree of violence the voting will provoke.
Many of those most closely involved in organizing the elections, including Iraqis, Americans and officials in a small United Nations election team, agree that the elections amount to a high-stakes gamble: one that could end the bitter reverses that have followed last year's invasion, but that could just as easily spiral into chaos, with widespread insurgent attacks on candidates and polling stations, or end in a lopsided victory by Iranian-backed Shiite religious groups that the ethnic and religious minorities, especially Sunnis and Kurds, refuse to accept.
[Greg adds] "Don't miss this part either":
But the largest unknown is the effect insurgents will have on voting. After a protracted debate, American officials have ruled that security at the 9,000 polling stations will be provided by Iraq's 120,000-strong security forces, with units of the 150,000 American troops deployed across the country by the end of January "over the horizon," out of sight but close enough to intervene.
The decision has been contested by some American commanders, who have said privately that their experience, particularly in Sunni-majority areas, is that people have scant confidence in Iraqi police and guardsmen, and have said that they would be more likely to vote if American troops formed an inner cordon.

Greg goes on to beat the "not enough boots on the ground" drum, to which Glenn Reynolds makes some amusing (and rather astute) ripostes.

Well, he has a point.

There aren't enough troops in the world to protect all the polling places from a determined assault with car bombs.

And Greg later points out that he didn't mean that in the first place, so what, exactly was his point?

That being the rum thing about terrorism: you can't protect a multitude of targets, scattered across a large geographical area, from surprise suicide attacks.

It's impossible. So of what utility, precisely, would more boots on the ground, provide, except to boost the casualty count (and the resulting hype from Al Jazeera) if the terrorists do manage to launch a successful attack?

Perhaps a little history lesson is in order here:

Conditions were horrible when Salvadorans went to the polls on March 28, 1982. The country was in the midst of a civil war that would take 75,000 lives. An insurgent army controlled about a third of the nation's territory. Just before election day, the insurgents stepped up their terror campaign. They attacked the National Palace, staged highway assaults that cut the nation in two and blew up schools that were to be polling places.
Yet voters came out in the hundreds of thousands. In some towns, they had to duck beneath sniper fire to get to the polls. In San Salvador, a bomb went off near a line of people waiting outside a polling station. The people scattered, then the line reformed. "This nation may be falling apart," one voter told The Christian Science Monitor, "but by voting we may help to hold it together." Conditions were scarcely better in 1984, when Salvadorans got to vote again. Nearly a fifth of the municipalities were not able to participate in the elections because they were under guerrilla control. The insurgents mined the roads to cut off bus service to 40 percent of the country. Twenty bombs were planted around the town of San Miguel. Once again, people voted with the sound of howitzers in the background.
Yet these elections proved how resilient democracy is, how even in the most chaotic circumstances, meaningful elections can be held.
They produced a National Assembly, and a president, José Napoleón Duarte. They gave the decent majority a chance to display their own courage and dignity. War, tyranny and occupation sap dignity, but voting restores it.

In any enterprise of this magnitude things can always go wrong, but setbacks and hardship often make people more determined to be free. Perhaps we could stop patronizing the Iraqis and give them some credit for having a little backbone.

We can't hand democracy to them on a silver platter, but we can certainly help them earn it. People who have a stake in their future are generally a lot more willing to fight for it. Maybe it's time to get out of their way and let them get on with the task.

I imagine more than a few people might be surprised at the results.

Posted by Cassandra at December 21, 2004 06:19 AM

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30+ years ago, the same people were saying we had too many boots on the ground. Oh, yeah, and they loved McNamara.

Posted by: RIslander [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 22, 2004 12:23 AM

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