February 23, 2005

An Optimistic Realist

Bob Blackwill:

So, it was not at all surprising to me that you had this extraordinary turnout in a situation in which, of course, there was scattered violence. Wherever you were voting, especially in Baghdad and areas around Baghdad, you had to wonder whether you were going to be attacked by the terrorists. So, I think it was an extraordinary outcome. As you say, nearly 60 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. And when you take into account that the Sunni turnout was quite low, you really do get in many areas of Shiite Iraq an 80 percent turnout, and in some areas of Kurdish Iraq, you get a 90 percent turnout. So, it was really quite extraordinary. And it just shows, again, what the president has been emphasizing, which is that, if given the opportunity, people, whatever their ethnicity and from whatever part of the globe they come, will choose freedom of choice, including elections and going to the polls.

So, it was an extraordinary outcome and one that didn't surprise me. And I must say also, just one last point, that this was also a shining endorsement of the president's strategy towards Iraq, where the critics have been pessimistic and wrong for well over a year with regard to the evolution of the Iraqi political process. And they've been wrong on every single important pivotal event. They were wrong on the elections. And they will probably go on being pessimistic and go on being wrong.

Another snippet from Bernard Gwertzman's interview of Blackwill well worth reading:

Q: Put on your Harvard hat for a moment. What's the impact of these elections and the recent Palestinian elections on the whole Middle East? After all, the president's been mocked by a lot of Democrats and others for the idealistic speeches he's been making about bringing democracy to the Middle East. Is this now more of a reality? Is this election going to put pressure on other states to reform?

A: The answer is yes. And, I must say, that those who mock haven't been paying attention to the empirical data that's been piling up. First, we had the Afghan election last fall with this extraordinary turnout. Then we had the Palestinian election. Then we had the Iraqi election. We're going to have a parliamentary election in Afghanistan in the spring. So this isn't a theory anymore, this is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East and it is absolutely revolutionary, these free and fair elections.

Now, the effect elsewhere in the region isn't going to happen overnight. It isn't going to be that some of these leaders who don't have sympathy for democratic practices are going to wake up in the middle of the night and have an epiphany and say, "Oh my goodness, we want to have our entirely free and fair elections, too." But I do think that, in aggregate, it does put pressure from the bottom up on these societies to move toward more freedom of choice in the political arena [emphasis added]

It's getting increasingly hard to deny that, isn't it?

Posted by Gregory at February 23, 2005 03:00 AM | TrackBack (22)

It's getting increasingly hard to deny that Iran has a parliament and ministers and elections. Yet C. Rice managed to do so in Europe last week by characterizing it as a "totalitarian state," to the astonishment of certain ears. With Jafaari about to step on stage as PM (too bad about Chalabi), should we conclude that Iranian-style democracy has been on the program all along???

Posted by: else at February 23, 2005 11:00 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Uh, given the fact that the ayatollahs exercise direct control over the parliament and the armed services, I'm not sure how powerful the majlis actually is. True power lies in the hands of the Religious Council and the Intelligence Directorate-under which serve the Revolutionary Guard. No, Rice is wrong on this point; Iran is not totalitarian, but it could well head that way again (it certainly was under Khomeini). I mean, I understand why Rice said that; the suppression of women in Iran must be deeply offensive to her, and she probably has access to intelligence about the nature and scope of Iran's internal security apparatus, up to and including the level of physical liquidations. Must remind her of the Yezhovschina of the late thirties. But it was an imprecise remark.

Opposition figures have been jailed and even killed by the RG's and the Intelligence Service. Persia may not be a totalitarian regime, but she is a religious dictatorship. This unhappy cirucumstance is something that the Shi'a clerics of Najaf and Karbala, under Sistani's guidance, have made a concious decision to avoid.

Thanks, I'll take Sistani's method of influence from the shadows any time. He's not stupid. He doesn't want the clerical class to get the blame for running the government into the ground. That's what happened in Persia.

He wants the clerics to be the go-to people when the politicians need a blessing and a kingmaker; not a class of people on whom the populace will blame for the potholes and sewage backup problems in Sadr City.

Chalabi lost out because he was seen as a Western stooge and a fast talker on the make. Besides, someone has to negotiate a settlement with the Sunni clerics and tribal chiefs; they damn sure don't trust Chalabi. No one does.

Posted by: Section9 at February 23, 2005 01:03 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

In case ELSE does not recall, I will refresh his memory:
- Iraq had a parliament and ministers and elections under Saddam Hussein
- The USSR had a parliament and ministers and elections

Other examples abound. The important point to note of course, is that in both cases above, as in Iran, the despots decided who could stand in the elections.

Posted by: Former CNN Watcher at February 23, 2005 01:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Funny thing is that we should have had the elections a year earlier, but Blackwill didn't support that.

Posted by: praktike at February 23, 2005 01:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Former CNN watcher takes me back to those marvelous times of "detente" in the 70s and 80s when you could take polisci courses on political structure in USSR, Yugoslavia, Cuba, and China and learn all about their "representative" branches of government. Heck it was all in their constitution sso it must be true, right? Then comes the 90s and these courses just mysteriously dissappeared. Where did all my course notes go I wonder?

Here's another "snippet" for our host thanks to TKS at NRO. This is from David Ignatious article in WaPo (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A45575-2005Feb22.html) nicely titled "Beirut's Berlin Wall. The man quoted is Walid Jumblatt, a Druze Muslim leading "the Lebanese intifada":

"It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq," explains Jumblatt. "I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world." Jumblatt says this spark of democratic revolt is spreading. "The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it."

Do you smell 1989 in the air? Is this really possible? How long until the shroud of cynicism is lefted elsewhere?

Posted by: PeterArgus at February 23, 2005 03:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Oops, that's lifted not lefted. Freudian slip I guess.

Posted by: PeterArgus at February 23, 2005 03:49 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

from my perch in berkeley, i can tell you one thing.

if we really do see some sort of replay of 1989 (which is still only in the just barely possible category), there will be a collective cranial implosion strong enough to detach california from the continent.

one can only hope (i wouldn't mind being a few hours closer to hawaii and japan)

Posted by: Knemon at February 23, 2005 08:06 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"With Jafaari about to step on stage as PM (too bad about Chalabi), should we conclude that Iranian-style democracy has been on the program all along???"

Only if you are a complete mushhead. Try reading the interim constitution for how the permanent constitution will be written and approved, and then tell me how the Kurds, Sunni, and secular Shiia will allow such a thing to pass.
Then again i suppose that for those who consider American elections deeply flawed and Iranian government democratic, anything is possible. So long as it suits your ends.

Posted by: Mark Buehner at February 23, 2005 08:15 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Iran is a police state, with a security apparatus that stamps out political dissent. If that isn't totalitarian I don't know what is. Granted, they may not be an "efficient" police state. What Iran is not is a dictatorship, since power is diffused through multiple centers of power. The elected parliament is one of those sources of power. However, since the candidate lists are culled by the clerics and the ability of elected officials and representatives to govern is extremely constrained by clerics and the judiciary, Iran's form of governance bears little resemblance to democracy.

Posted by: ATM at February 23, 2005 08:32 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Funny thing is that we should have had the elections a year earlier, but Blackwill didn't support that."

Why? All the accumulated wisdom on nation-building says that you build up independent judiciary and other stable civil institutions first so that elections will not just install another dictator who will abolish them. Delaying elections also gives people time to practice democracy in local elections (which the Iraqis did starting Fall 2003) and gives moderate parties a chance to develop. All of which went according to plan.

What would be the advantage in rushing elections?

Posted by: Yehudit at February 23, 2005 09:09 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Wasn't the original plan vastly different though for elections? Didn't Brahimi come in and meet with Sistani and lobby for earlier elections in a different format or order? I don't recall that being part of the original "plan". A seemingly good and effective acceptance of a *change in plans*, but saying that was the plan all along seems a bit too generous. Yeah, splitting hairs, but a hair that is often dissected here and elsewhere.

Posted by: TG at February 24, 2005 12:23 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Thanks for underscoring DJ's point, else. Heck, if I were a Democrat conspiracy theorist, I'd think Greg wrote his own first comment as an inside joke - under the pen-name "else".

Wonder where we'll all be the day your "wall" "falls" down...

oh - and by the way, someone tell Mr. Jumblatt: Walls don't "fall down", they are torn down - and more often than not - from the "wrong" side...

Posted by: Tommy G at February 24, 2005 12:51 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I seem to recall Big Sis wanted nationwide elections immediately. Anyway, timing was secondary to the pent-up need for self-determination and self-governance in determining the support the elections got. Practice will come thick and fast over the next year or two; in that respect the TVA and sequencing are very valuable.


Posted by: Brian H at February 24, 2005 03:03 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't think Blackwill fairly represents liberal criticism of the administration's Iraq policy, which has focused on its cost in lives and money to us rather than expressing doubt about democracy in Arab countries. About this latter subject most Democratic critics of the administration in Congress have said little.

My personal criticism has emphasized what a poster upthread alluded to, namely that democracy requires a lot more than one election and that America does not have the resources to stay in Iraq long enough to oversee the creation of the institutions and social customs necessary to make democracy an enduring reality there. Having made the commitment, however unwisely, we have little choice but to try to make it good.

So I am gratified by the successful election and its impact in Lebanon and the West Bank. But in the best case we are only at the beginning of a long road, in a region from which the great challenges to America's future will not come.

Posted by: Zathras at February 24, 2005 03:53 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I echo Zathras's claim that Blackwill is sort of erecting a straw man to tear down. Furthermore, how could Afghanistan having a free election, and a subsequent parliamentary election, be attributed to invading Iraq?

Most of the critics of Bush's policies were in favor of the Afghan campaign, but opposed to the Iraq invasion.

And isn't it very plausible that the Palestinians would have held an election even if we never invaded Iraq? How are the two causally linked?

According to dominant theories about the force of democracy, such as Fukuyama's, it would seem that democratic change is in many ways inevitable, even if it can be aided by certain external forces. But are we going to say that every single democratic change or movement that experiences any kind of breakthrough after March 2003 is a causal result of the invasion of Iraq?

For example, why was the Afghan democratic revival not enough to spur change? Why wasn't 9/11 itself a catalyst for introspection and reform in the Muslim world? Did the invasion of Iraq actually spur some type of backlash or strengthening of anti-Democratic forces as per Gilles Kepel's recent book?

I would shy away from such reductionist, single act, and self serving views of historical changes. In a word: facile.

Posted by: Eric Martin at February 24, 2005 07:56 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

As for Blackwill's claim that the president's critics have been wrong about the evolution of the political movement in Iraq, to the extent that they have been wrong about "every single important pivotal event," I'd have a lot to question.

Hmmm, were the critics wrong that Chalabi didn't have a mandate to lead the Iraqi people in the aftermath of the invasion? Because up until last week, Bush's supporters were still breathless in their praise, and predictions that Chalabi would emerge as the prime minister. Bush's critics were right.


Bush supporters, including Belgravia Dispatch, went on the record several times predicting that the Sunnis would turn out in large numbers, despite the "pessimism" of Bush's critics. This, they claimed, would solve the problems of Sunni exclusion in the nascent legislature. Bush's critics, of course, were right and those problems loom very large.

Bush's critics warned that the handover of limited sovereignty to the IGC would not take the steam out of the insurgency. They were called pessimists. They were in fact optimists. Not only has the insurgency continued, but the rate of attacks has increased.

Ditto the capture of Hussein. Another pivotal event, that didn't really pivot anything.

Bush wanted to hold elections through regional caucuses, but Sistani objected. Sistani prevailed, and Bush had to give in. Ditto timing of the elections, and the use of the interim constitution as the permanent one.

Bush's critics scoffed at the idea that Ayad Allawi's party would have a strong showing, despite claims by supporters who said not to be surprised by the fact that a silent majority of secular Shiites were going to insure a big turnout for Allawi. Bush's critics were right. The Sistani blessed ticket dominated on the national level, and on the local level parties like Dawa were even more successful. Religious Shiite parties took 13 out of 18 districts in local elections.

And before we get ahead of ourselves, let's see to what extent the new Iraqi government relies on the interim constitution, and to what extent they bring religious influence into the fray. I don't foresee an Iranian style government, but I would hesitate to say that critics who claimed that an Israeli-friendly, free-market driven, liberal democracy wouldn't emerge were wrong.

I don't think the new govt will be an ally to Israel, nor do I think we can count on free market principles ruling the roost - especially with Jaafari at the helm. I hold out hope for the respect of individual rights, but I think there are real dangers for falling short on some of this. Especially for women, who will probably be subjected to some of the laws that the pessimists predicted.

Seems like a mixed bag to me. Blackwill is being unduly triumphalist abou this.

Posted by: Eric Martin at February 24, 2005 08:19 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Irony certainly goes a long way. Imagine being taken for Greg and a "mushhead" to boot. E Martin above is quite correct: nothing can be deduced from radically disparate examples of a similar event. Chambers with deputies do not a democracy make. You tend to get far more bang for blood and treasure from "rule of law." Until some semblance of an "état de droit" has been established in Afghanistan and Iraq, Blackwill and others will simply be blowing a good deal of hot air.

My rhetorical question about Iranian democracy being on the program pertains to the real US players and their original objectives. Should Jafaari turn out to be as Iran-oriented as some take him to be, would that fulfill the original design? Will Blackwill be as enchanted with the outcome as he appears to be with the reign of feudal lords in Afghanistan? Does the election of Abu Mazen have any bearing on Israeli policy?

Posted by: else at February 24, 2005 08:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I realized that it is getting harder and harder to deny that when I saw that a website I post on and which is vehemently anti-Bush in all its glory and usually has 14 anti-Bush subjects and 1 pro-Bush subject right now has 12 Gannon subjects and 3 anti-Bush subjects. That is an amazing change!! If these people can't be dissing Bush then he has an astounding victory in the Middle East on his hands.

Posted by: dick at February 27, 2005 01:44 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Who are the some who take Jafaari to be Iran-oriented? The man has already talked about how he wants a secular government. It is their government to create, after all. I predict that the LLL will soon be back on the "it's all about the oooiiiillll" tack again or it will take a lot more elections or "it will depend on whether they follow what I want their democracy to be" or more such things. There is no way that else and Eric Martin, patting each other on the back for the insight they bring to this, ever to admit that Bush has been right all along about the thrust of democracy in the Middle East.

Posted by: dick at February 27, 2005 01:55 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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