February 01, 2005

Three Bets, Three Wins

Fouad Ajami:

Q: What are your first thoughts in the wake of Sunday's elections in Iraq?

A: It reminded me of just a few weeks ago when people were celebrating the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. The spectacle of ordinary Iraqis; old women, old men, Iraqis returning from far away to vote, people holding up their forefingers dipped in purple ink, gave the lie to the idea that democracy is alien or need be alien to this region. I got up this morning and decided, because I knew I was going to be talking to you, that I would pick up the Arabic press and see how the election was covered to get a sense of how the region responded to this dramatic and big event.

Q: How did they respond?

A: It was interesting. I would have to say the most shameful of all the responses came from the Egyptians, from the leading paper of the regime of [President] Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak was one of the three people in the region that President Bush called to discuss the Iraqi election; the other two being King Abdullah II of Jordan and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

In the lead paper of Egypt, Al Ahram, the elections were treated as some marginal event. The front page went, of course, to Mubarak who was attending a conference of the Organization for African Unity in Abuja, Nigeria. It was as if Mubarak wanted to shield his country from the effect of this Iraqi revolution.

On the other side, the elections received remarkable coverage from a paper which is undergoing a tremendous revolution, I think, in the way it thinks about the world and covers the world. It's a very influential paper, Asharq Al Awsat, a Saudi-owned paper that's published in London. It was exuberant over the election. The front page was celebratory. The huge banner headline said, "Iraqis Vote for Iraq." And the two pictures on the front page were of a man holding his forefinger with the purple ink and a woman looking and studying her ballot, perhaps a woman who may even be unable to read, who may actually vote with her thumbprint.

These two responses tell you the story that, among some Arabs, there is a kind of celebration of the freedom of Iraq. And then there is this other approach to the elections of Iraq, a fear of what this election would mean for other Arabs, with a determination to show, of course, that it was just another violent day in Iraq. Mubarak and his press, in my opinion, disgraced themselves. In the midst of history being made in Iraq, you have a situation where Mubarak himself is preparing to run for another six-year term to bring it to thirty years in office. So, he is in the middle of preparing for his own uncontested election.

Juan Cole's reaction, say, was much more al Ahram than Asharq Al Awsat, no? But what is he shielding us from? The possibility, just maybe, that Bush's policies in Iraq could bear fruit? On that note, don't miss this part of Ajami's interview:

Q: Let's talk about the United States, where President Bush is having a lucky streak.

You know, he's made three bets and he's won three times. He made a bet in Afghanistan there would be elections. He made a bet in Palestine that he would not have to deal with [former Palestinian Authority President Yasir] Arafat. The death of Arafat and the success of [president of the Palestinian Authority] Abu Mazen in the elections earlier in January were a vindication of the Bush policy. Now come the elections in Iraq.

Here is the president, a few days earlier, being ridiculed by the "realists" and by other people presumably "in the know" when he said he had planted the flag of liberty firmly, and people ridiculed him for saying he had planted a flag of liberty in Iraq, of all places. Well, now the elections vindicate him. But, I add, there is much danger for this policy still. The victory is not total and final, but grant this administration these three good outcomes--Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq.

I think the Iraq elections bought time for our president, not only on the ground in Iraq, but I generally believe they bought him time in the United States. It was almost like we as Americans had grown estranged from the people of Iraq. We came to doubt them. We got used to seeing them in a foul mood. We didn't see enough gratitude on the ground in Iraq. For a fleeting moment, today, January 31, in the immediate aftermath of the election, it seems as though we've closed a circle. We've gone back to that dramatic day, April 9, 2003, when that statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Firdos Square [in Baghdad]. We now seem to be bonded with the Iraqis because they were doing the most American of things, voting. There were election banners, there were these simple men and women, peasants, the marsh Arabs, Kurdish mountaineers, all voting.

You could almost forgive our President if he were to say: "I told you so. I said that I planted the flag of freedom and I planted the flag of liberty." So, I think the news from Iraq is a vindication of this policy. It doesn't tell us that the gospel of liberty is going to sweep the Arab world, but I think it does buy time for the policy. It does re-hook the American people to Iraq. It tells them something good can come out of Iraq. The elections came at about the time we passed 1,400 U.S. fatalities in Iraq. We have paid a terrible price, a heavy price in Iraq, but the elections vindicate and redeem the policy-- there is no doubt about it.

P.S. Chill out on the Sunnis--it just might be O.K.

A lot of people have been predicting that now that the election is over, there will be a big effort to bring the Sunnis into the constitution-writing process.

Everyone I've spoken to in Iraq, Kurdish leaders and Shiite leaders alike, will tell you no one has any intention to put together a new political process in Iraq that eliminates the Sunni Arabs. The Sunni Arabs will have a place at the table. By the way, no one really knows for sure what the Sunni Arabs are as a percentage of the population. I've seen figures as low as 13%. I've seen figures as high as 20%. So, cut it any which way you want, the Sunni Arabs are at best 20%, at worst 13% of the population of Iraq.

No, the betting hasn't played out. This effort will be counted in years. But so far, we are doing well indeed. If we can strike a peace deal in the Holy Land by '08, stabilize Iraq under moderate Shi'a rule, integrate southeast Afghanistan under central government rule and moderate the behaviour of warlords like Dostum and Khan, begin to bring economic and political reforms, in collaborative fashion rather than at the barrel of a gun, to the Egypts and Saudis of the region--what massive progress this will portend in the conflict against radical Islam. And, yes, it's within grasp. There will be many setbacks--but I feel the broad direction of history is at our backs--at least at this juncture. These are exciting times indeed. A tad giddy, here? Perhaps. But if Asia and Europe could become largely democratic after the turbulence of communism, nationalism and fascism, well, why can't the Middle East after decades of authoritarianism? Yes, these are largely pre-Englightenment societies. But they instinctually hungered and were jubilant at the exercise of their newfound electoral freedoms--without having read their Montesquieu or Rousseau. It's called basic human dignity--and Bush's policies in Iraq just provided some to millions of heretofore disenfranchised Iraqis. Yes, there has been woeful carnage and suffering aplenty. But that is sometimes the price of large forward strides in history's evolution towards freer societies, alas. Look, all this could still prove a horrific disaster, of course, if elections ulimately set off uncontrollable factionalism, civil strife, anarchy. The road ahead remains perilous indeed. But I believe we have much leverage over reining in the maximalist agendas of all the key actors in Iraq--and therefore think we have a materially better than even shot at keep this thing together. Indeed, I think there is a decent shot Iraq might be a viable democracy in, say, 10 or so years. That, undeniably, would be an epoch-making event and a major positive in the region and, indeed, for the world. If that occurs, the names Bush and Blair will be remembered quite kindly by History, despite all the vitriolic denunciations heaped at them by large swaths of their respective publics.

Posted by Gregory at February 1, 2005 07:02 AM | TrackBack (10)

A great analysis. I like your including that quote on having "closed a circle" -- it puts into words my own imprecise feeling. I hope you are right, and that you will continue to work the way you have to give the rest of us more knowledge of what's happening behind the curtain.

I had never realized, either, that the number of Sunnis was so imprecisely known. I have never seen any figure excelt 20% in print.

Posted by: Sammler at February 1, 2005 09:16 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Here's a better picture of Ward Churchill than the one you used.


This time you can see his full face. Makes one appreciate why he had it half- hidden in a downward pose.

He reminds me a little as one of those people someone who has entered American idol, but has no talent. The only way he can be famous is to be a fool.

Posted by: Lee at February 1, 2005 01:32 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

As usual a thoughtful and thought provoking article.While I realise that it is important not to become 'giddy',and that the monsters are still under the bed,I am much more than hopeful. If building a decent society in Iraq is akin to pushing a rock up a hill and then allowing it to descend the other side by its own weight,I really believe that the rock is now firmly placed at the top of the hill.Granted disaster may strike,but the odds are that sooner rather than later,it will begin to roll down the other side with increasing speed.
If this happens,GWB will go down in history as perhaps one of the greatest of US leaders. He will deserve the honour.

Posted by: dougf at February 1, 2005 03:03 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I would add that it is not so necessary to read Montesquieu or Rousseau as it was 230 years ago. Then, they were works of theory, far removed from the actual practice of any country. Now examples of what these theories mean in action have spread, so that democracy is not the pursuit of an ideal of what might be, but (in the main) a pursuit of democracy's existing exemplars.

Posted by: sammler at February 1, 2005 04:10 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I've read similar sentiments before, and they made no sense then either - "The Sunni Arabs will have a place at the table." How can that be possible? If they didn't have delegates (or parties of delagates) elected to their constitutional convention, how can they just be stuck in there anyway? For an election of this sort to be anything but a sham, nobody who got the necessary votes can be arbitrarily EXcluded by someone else who thinks they SHOULDN'T be there. By the same token, nobody who DIDN'T get the necessary votes can be artibrarily INcluded by someone else who thinks they SHOULD be there. By choosing to not participate in the democratic process, the Sunnis are, comparatively speaking, excluded from the democratic process. This seems obvious enough to be tautological, but I keep hearing these noises about the Sunnis being "included."

Just because they didn't vote themselves into relevance doesn't mean they're all scrod. Women and non-landowners weren't a part of the earliest American political process (including the Constitutional Convention) but they weren't all driven out of the country or bundled off to concentration camps. They were definitely "included" in the concept of America. But they certainly didn't have a "place at the table." So, by what strange rationale can the Sunnis attempt to destroy their cake, and eat it too?

Posted by: big dirigible at February 1, 2005 05:04 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Re: “...perhaps a woman who may even be unable to read...”

Just a note: An Iraqi in Cleveland told me a few years ago that Iraqi women tend to be literate because Saddam demanded literacy and instituted one of his typically draconian penalties for women who were not old and didn’t know how to read. I forget what the penalty was, but it was definitely draconian.

Posted by: ForNow at February 1, 2005 05:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Re: "big dirigible" comments as to Sunni participation: My understanding is that there WERE Sunni candidates as part of the several hundred-odd choices on the ballot. I think most or all of them were part of blocs. The comments regarding inclusion I take to mean that the alliances necessary to rule the country will include some of these blocs in order to ensure Sunni participation.

Posted by: Claudel at February 1, 2005 06:00 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't see proportionate representation in the body that will write Iraq's constitution as necessary (or, to be fair, sufficient) to come up with a basic laws protecting minority rights. Sunni Arabs though perhaps underrepresented will not be unrepresented, and everyone knows the importance of securing as much support for the new government as possible.

By "everyone" I mean the leading Shiites and (presumably) the Kurds as well. What can't be wished away is the reality that this has to be a two-way street. Sunni Arabs were responsible for most of the former regime's crimes; Sunni Arabs predominate among the insurgents who have been targeting Shiites and Kurds for almost two years now; Sunni Arabs harbor most of the non-Iraqis participating in the insurgency.

This is a community that has a lot to answer for. What do they want now? Can they be trusted? If individual Sunni Arab leaders and organizations can be trusted, to what extent can they be depended on to speak for the Sunni Arabs as a whole, particularly the men with the guns? What are they prepared to do to show that they will not continue to pursue Sunni domination through terrorism?

I'm sorry to point out bumps in the road, but cultures do not change in a day. Democracy IS alien to this part of the world. That does not mean it is unattractive to many people, or that its seeds can never take root, but any seed very recently planted is vulnerable -- vulnerable to its enemies, vulnerable to corruption or dissension among people unused to it, vulnerable to mistakes made in good faith. A minimum requirement for success in Iraq now is realism about the obstacles we and the Iraqis face.

None of this, of course, means that Sunday's election turnout was not a very good thing. It was best of all for the Iraqis, of course, but it seems obvious to me that President Bush and Prime Minister Blair are entitled to credit as well. Without their decision to remove Saddam Hussein's regime by force Iraq would not have seen an election of this kind for many years, and the civil war everyone worries about now would likely have happened anyway eventually. Whether this result was worth the price the allied powers have already paid and will continue to pay for the forseeable future is another question, one we can't answer right now. But that's a caveat, not a denial that Sunday's good news was good news.

Posted by: Zathras at February 1, 2005 07:16 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

As a center-left liberal - I accept defeat. Bush was right, I was wrong. With one caveat though - the administration was NOT originally in favor of "one person, one vote" elections. It was forced on them by Sistani.

Still a huge vindication for the Bush strategy, if not his tactics.

btw, Juan Cole - like Paul Krugman - is a highly intelligent and knowledgeable chap blinded by his rage at Bush. But much of what he says is correct and true (if you discount the overheated blog entries). His article in Salon today - http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2005/02/01/future/index_np.html - is highly informative.


Posted by: Vish Subramanian at February 1, 2005 09:13 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

big dirigible:
Just because they didn't vote themselves into relevance doesn't mean they're all scrod. Women and non-landowners weren't a part of the earliest American political process (including the Constitutional Convention) but they weren't all driven out of the country or bundled off to concentration camps. They were definitely "included" in the concept of America. But they certainly didn't have a "place at the table." So, by what strange rationale can the Sunnis attempt to destroy their cake, and eat it too?

I think it's important to keep in mind that we don't know the split between (A) Sunnis that didn't vote because they're rejectionists, (B) Sunnis that didn't vote because of the circumstances surrounding the elections and (C) Sunnis that would have liked to vote, didn't vote because it was extremely dangerous to vote in heavily Sunni areas (or perhaps couldn't vote because their precincts didn't open). (With all the much-deserved accolades to the heroism of voters in Kurdish and Shia areas, it was much harder to cast a ballot in the Sunni triangle.)

For an Iraqi state to succeed in the long term, group (C) and most of group (B) need to be somehow brought to the table. If they're not, then you're going to be permanently running a very real risk of sectarian civil war. If they are, you might even convince some people in group (A) to switch sides.

For this first election, low Sunni turnout was an unfortunate characteristic which couldn't be avoided given that having a prompt election (and an Iraqi government with popular legitimacy) was so important. But in the long run, it's not sustainable.

Hopefully in the next set of elections (for the permanent assembly, and within a year, no?) Sunni participation will be much more robust.

Posted by: Guy at February 1, 2005 09:38 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


It seems to me that the general gnashing about Sunni representation is aside the point. At 15-20%, the more they play up their religion, the less likely they are to win national election.

An analogy offered to all here for dissection:

How big is the Mormon strain of Christianity in the United States? Surely they do well for themselves in Utah. Ans just as certainly they move about the country and engage in successful commercial and cultural enterprises. Seems unlikely that one would ever become President, much less ever represent a significant percentage of either house of the congress. At what of it?

Please correct any errors in the above...

Posted by: Art Wellesley at February 2, 2005 12:39 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The question is whether the Sunnis are like the Mormons, or whether a more apt analogy would be the South African whites. The latter are 13% of the population but, because they are (still) on average far more educated, are crucial to the running of the country.

Posted by: sammler at February 2, 2005 08:55 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Hmmm. OK. You know, I suppose you're right. But what about the expatriate crowd? No doubt they'll be flowing in soon.

Posted by: Art Wellesley at February 2, 2005 03:59 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


It is incorrect that Bush was opposed to one man one vote, regardless of Cole's tendentious massaging of what went on.

Posted by: Lance at February 2, 2005 08:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Lance, I can believe that Bush did not oppose one-man one-vote.

What Bush opposed was holding elections.

The idea was to have elections in a few years after the country was sufficiently settled down, or locked-down, or something like that.

Posted by: J Thomas at February 4, 2005 08:11 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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