January 31, 2005,
The Iraqi people Sunday stuck a finger in the eye of the country's vicious insurgency and its former jackbooted rulers. The finger, of course, was stained in the purple ink that marked participation in Iraq's first meaningful election in 50 years.
Iraqis braved the insurgents' threats and all the predictions of gloom to plant the flag of nascent democracy in their country. How many lives of American GIs, innocent Iraqi victims of terror, and Iraqi government officials, professionals, and election workers targeted for assassination have been lost to make yesterday possible? The Iraqis took a step to making good on all those terrible losses. Which is just one reason why the spectacle of Iraqis lining up to vote and sometimes cheering and dancing with joy was so moving.
Sunday was also a day of vindication for President Bush. How many times now has he been told by the press, the Europeans, and other doubters that something can't be done, and simply forged ahead and done it? His determination to see the election through in the teeth of calls for its delay, and his faith that Iraqis would make a strong civic statement in favor of a better Iraq, were both shown to be courageous and far-sighted. America's willful defeatists led by Senator Ted Kennedy, who chose to declare our cause all but lost just days before this historic vote look particularly puny in light of the millions who turned out to vote because they believe in the new Iraq.
Yes, there were problems. Sunni turnout appears to have been disappointing, significantly lower than the early estimate of 60-percent turnout nationwide. But this doesn't necessarily signal broad Sunni disenchantment with the political process. Many Sunnis, living in the most chaotic and insurgency-ridden areas, were simply frightened away from the polls. There will be many chances to bring responsible Sunni leaders into the process going forward. Indeed, the mechanisms for the selection of a three-person presidential council, the appointment of a prime minister, and the writing and approval by referenda of a permanent constitution are all designed to emphasize consensus and coalition politics.
on the side of decency and modernity
in the battle over the future of Islam.”
Even Sunni parties that have boycotted the election say they want to be included in the writing of the constitution. Commentators tend to earnestly intone that the Shia must include Sunnis in Iraq's political future, having apparently neglected to notice that the mainstream Shia political leadership has said they are committed to doing this from day one. Indeed, one of yesterday's heroes is Ayatollah Sistani who may prove to be the father of the new Iraq. He has been unswervingly devoted to elections, has signed off on the creation of secular government, has refused to be baited by the insurgency into embroiling the country in a sectarian civil war, and has displayed forbearance toward the presence of American troops. The success of the new Iraq ultimately depends on Iraqis, and exactly this sort of responsible statesmanship.
There will still be violence in Iraq and grim news. But the election could be an important step toward sapping the energy of the insurgency. Insurgencies ultimately succeed or fall on their political appeal. Yesterday Iraqis had a choice between Sistani's admonition to vote and Zarqawi's warning that democracy is evil. Sistani won. This means most Iraqis have come down on the side of decency and modernity in the battle over the future of Islam on which so much depends. There are signs that Iraqis fed up with Zarqawi's mayhem are beginning to give up important information about his network. Thus, two of the most important ingredients to battling the insurgency successfully a political process that marginalizes it and good intelligence gathering that exposes it are increasingly evident. (And all without the significant increase in American troop levels that has been deemed essential by Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld's critics.)
The Iraqis will surely have plenty of near-crises during the coming weeks of intense political haggling and compromise. They will have to build stable institutions in a harrowingly rapid timeframe, under fire from an insurgency and still occupied by foreign troops. The Bush administration and the American public will be well-served to maintain realistic expectations of what will result from this in the near-term: a government vastly better than Saddam's and than any other government found in any other major Arab country, but one that still falls short of Western norms and has characteristics significantly shaped by the imperatives of a tribal, deeply religious, and ethnically divided society. And American troops who can be so proud of what they made possible this weekend will still be necessary to do the hard work of trying to grind down the insurgency until Iraq security services are better able to do it on their own.
Realism and patience, in short, will be just as necessary going forward as they have been over the last difficult and often heart-breaking year. But January 30, 2005, is a day to be remembered, a day of celebration. This year, springtime came early to Iraq.