December 16, 2005

December 15th 2005: A Day of (Cautious) Hope and Optimism

The big story today was Sunni turnout. It was very high, and despite all the immense challenges ahead, no judicious observer can deny that this December 15th has been a happy day in the history of Iraq. Ballot-boxes may prove to be but a short-term strategy for the Sunnis, and force of arms may be resorted to again in even greater number than in the past if developments deteriorate, but there is nothing inexorably negative about Iraq's future, it is worth recalling sometimes amidst all the strum und drang (though I can't stress enough again the enormity of the challenges that await). And it was telling to see today how Sunnis wielded their votes with pride and dignity. They plainly enjoyed this exercise of sovereignty, and the memory of that enjoyment has real value. To them, and to us. Still, we cannot really predict the future, except to have the humility to realize that random happenstance, good decisions and bad ones, the actions of states near and far, and myriad other variables--all will play their roles in the coming months as Iraq continues its voyage towards a variety of possible scenarios that remain unknowable at the present time. But in the immediate future, we must now wait and see how parliamentary representation is going to develop, and who the new leader of Iraq will be.

Some brave souls, like Bob Blackwill, have been courageous enough to offer up predictions earlier in the week:

ROBERT D. BLACKWILL: Well, first of all, I’d say that handicapping an election on Monday that’s going to take place on Thursday is probably not the smartest thing to do. But courage—I’ll proceed.

Just to remind you, there are 275 seats in the Iraqi parliament. In the last election, January election, the Shi’a Alliance got 140 seats, so an absolute majority in that election. The Kurds were at 75 seats, and Allawi’s party was at 40. And the Sunnis had, if I remember correctly, 16, because, of course, they didn’t participate. And it was a national election, one constituency, so it favored turnout.

This election will be quite different. It is organized by provinces. And of course the Sunni are—every sign—going to participate widely and enthusiastically in this election.

So let me take a guess here—as I say, somewhat foolhardy, but luckily, no one’s watching, and it’s not on the record, so what’s there to risk?

First, start with the Shi’a Alliance. All of the parties that are in the coalitions that I described before are going to have fewer seats, because the Sunnis are going to have more. So start there.

Yes, as you look toward Thursday and then afterwards, when the votes are counted, I think a crucial analytical question are—is the Shi’a Alliance over a hundred or under a hundred? And how much over a hundred? Question number one.

I was in Iraq two weeks ago, and this of course is the buzz around the country. But—so that’s question one.

If I had to guess, between 100 and 125. But of course it makes a lot of difference if it’s on the low end or the high end, with regard to forming a governing coalition.

The Kurds will be down, maybe in the 50s, low 60s, perhaps.

The—Allawi is coming on fast, apparently, in Baghdad, especially. So I don’t know whether it’ll be 40-ish. Could be lower. Could be somewhat higher.

And then the Sunnis, 40 to 50.

Now let me say that those are the numbers depending on you—how you count them—and then 15 or so other members of Parliament.

Depending on how you calculate them, you could just barely imagine a coalition being put together of other than the one led by the Shi’a Alliance. You could just barely imagine that.

If you were Ladbrookes and you were touting it today, you’d tout it that the next prime minister of Iraq is going to be from the Shi’a Alliance, if you had to guess. And if you had to guess, it would be Adel Abdul Mahdi, who is the current vice president of Iraq, the Shi’a vice president, a former finance minister, member of the Governing Council and so forth.

And what of Adel Abdul Mahdi?

Here's Blackwill's take:

I know him well and I have very high regard for Abdul Mahdi, very high regard. And he has had as a preoccupation Sunni outreach for a long time. It was difficult to find an instrumental way to pursue that as vice president of Iraq, since there are very few powers and authorities that reside in that office; and of course, as finance minister, even less. I think he’ll reach out. But again, the—as—if he is the prime minister, he’ll be the prime minister of a group, a substantial part of which is deeply emotional about the Sunnis and the terrorism that the Sunnis, in their view, visited on them for decades and decades and decades. So in that respect, he’s like a democratic politician trying to manage his base, if I may put it like that. And that will be no easy thing to do.

Because, as I say, when one discusses—as I have many, many times with Shi’a—the idea of outreach to the Sunnis, they instinctively say two things, neither of which is helpful to reconciliation. The first is, of course, the history; this dreadful history of tens of thousands and maybe even hundreds of thousands of Shi’a being in mass graves in the Iraqi desert. But the second is more recent, that is to say, the Sunni bombings of Shi’a mosques; and if one says to them, which they often accept, “Well, these aren’t even Iraqi Sunnis; these are others,” still doesn’t always carry the day with them. So he’s going to have a substantial challenge to face.

But at the same time, if the Kurds are in, and especially if Allawi is in, which is a possibility, and then, if the Sunnis are involved in the domestic politics, as they will be of Iraq, I’m hopeful that all those pressures together will—to finally like this—will help produce the outcome—which you imply and I think all of us would agree—is a much greater Sunni political participation in the government.

I will be surprised if the Sunnis are not represented in a substantial way in the government. Because for them to make the decision to forego any ministerial seats when the next election is not scheduled for four years, would be an enormous decision on their part, when there’s, again, not much of a tradition of the loyal opposition in Iraq, which, of course, in the Saddam period was murdered.

IGNATIUS: Perhaps since you do know Abdul Mahdi well, if you could share with us, you know, anecdote, just a sense of him as a person. He may soon be the decisive personality in Iraq. He’s not well known in this country. So much will be riding on him and his judgment, his personal qualities. Just say a little bit more about him, and why you think he might be an appropriate person.

BLACKWILL: Well, he’s French educated, has a couple of degrees in economics from French universities. He is a quiet, reserved person, so there’s no energetic flamboyance about him. He has spent, as many of these Iraqi figures have, in Saddam’s prison. He’s been tortured in Saddam’s prison system. He is very cosmopolitan, lived years of his life in Paris, and has been regarded inside Iraq as one of the very most competent people involved in the Governing Council, then in the Iraqi Interim Government and now as vice president.

My own view is that he is—he’s very competent. His political skills I think to some degree have yet to be tested in the way we were describing it because this will be a substantial political challenge. But, as I say, he is a formidable person.

Whoever wins, and forms a government, as Blackwill points out, will have to gain 2/3 parliamentary approval sometime in January of '06. This will force the key individuals forming the government to strive to be broad-based, though a risk still exists of some Shi'a-Kurdish condominium (or religious alliances, among other perhaps unsavory combinations). Still, however, I remain optimistic a decent Sunni contingent will be supportive of this new government, particularly if Sunnis are given some key ministries (I'd like to see them get the Ministry of Defense, for instance). All this said, as I've been writing of late, the obstacles facing this new government will be very considerable. There is the insurgency which, while weakened, still poses a real threat. There is Iranian trouble-making in the south (which will increase with American and British draw-downs), and continued Syrian reticence to make a truly serious attempt to make their border with Iraq less porous. And then, of course, there are several very fundamental issues facing the new Iraq which, while not intractable, pose immense challenges. Some of them are discussed here:

I would say the most critical issue is that which has been referred to as “federalism,” but goes much deeper than that and connects with all kinds of other issues. It really has to do with the relative strengths of the central government and of the regional and provincial governments. The constitution seems to tip the balance very much in the favor of the latter. I would say that’s connected to other issues: These include oil resources and revenues and how those are going to be distributed; the make-up of the security forces; and to even some extent, ethnic and sectarian issues. The provincial borders tend to reflect some ethnic and sectarian division in Iraq. There are some other issues that are controversial as well, such as those regarding Islam and the country’s identity and to what extent it can be described as an Arab country. But I would say the key, practical differences really relate to the division of powers between the center and regional governments.

So, to close, and with limited time to write more, let me say that I am in cautiously optimistic mood today--while positively thrilled to see the outpouring of joy and happiness and dignity of ordinary Iraqis exercising their right to vote. I am also very gratified to witness the continued fine work of our Ambassador to Baghdad, heartened by the appearance these past months of a significantly more sophisticated counter-insurgency campaign, happy to see the State Department explicitly handed the reins on reconstruction efforts (after the bumbling mishaps of the civilian leadership of the Pentagon), and not wholly unrelatedely by any stretch, I am so proud of Senator McCain (who never appeared more a shadow President than today, this was his biggest 'win' since New Hampshire) for dealing a defeat against al-Qaeda (yes, you read that right) of which I'll have and explain more over the weekend. This was a fine day indeed for those who believe our "better angels", as Lincoln put it, will prevail--both in Iraq and the United States. Despite all the massive challenges that await, let us put December 15th 2005 among the days that belong to hope and optimism, rather than dismay and fear.

Posted by Gregory at December 16, 2005 02:46 AM | TrackBack (3)

whoopie! Time to break out the Blue Thumbs again!

And sorry, but I really can't take seriously any "prognosicator" who is so sanguine about the prospect of a government being formed in Iraq that is not lead by those affiliated with the Shiite religious parties. Do you really want to see Sadr and his Mahdi army unleashed, Greg -- because we both know that is what will happen if a "secular" government is installed right now.

Posted by: lukasiak at December 16, 2005 05:57 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Ballot-boxes may prove to be but a short-term strategy for the Sunnis, and force of arms may be resorted to again in even greater number than in the past"

I would just point out that this is poor logic. The two options are not mutually exclusive. There is nothing stopping people from using both the ballot-box and force of arms, and I figure that's exactly what the Iraqi insurgents are doing.

I guess you can be optimistic that this doesn't turn into another ethnic census like the previous votes, because if it does, then little will change, and it's a long time before the next election to give hope.

Posted by: Northman at December 16, 2005 04:03 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

No one really *knows* what's going on in Iraq. We know lots of important pieces, don't know much in depth of details and can't predict with certainty how the complex forces will react.

So let's hope. Many Iraqis are sane enough to see the consequences if workable measures are not found. It is f course true that some of the parties involved have shown inclinations to rule by the gun, but a bit of hope is a good thing, perhaps there are ways through this.

Posted by: angela at December 16, 2005 08:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Funny thing about McCain: though he had never established a reputation as much more than a legislative middleweight -- he spends too much time before the cameras for that -- he has twice now rolled the administration on issues that Bush and his people started out squarely against him, first campaign finance reform and now the treatment of detainees.

Compare that with the last prominent Republican to lose to a Bush in the GOP primaries, Bob Dole in 1988, who as Senate Republican leader eventually played a leading role in a deficit reduction package that included tax increases the elder Bush had campaigned against. And contrast it to the last three Democrats to lose Presidential elections -- Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry -- all of whom pretty much disappeared immediately thereafter.

Posted by: JEB at December 16, 2005 08:56 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Interesting point JEB, but I would say that Dukakis (former Gov) and Gore (former Veep) didn't really have anywhere else to go - whereas Dole and McCain still had their spots in the Senate from which to play big. Though so does Kerry and he is basically a non-factor.

Posted by: Eric Martin at December 16, 2005 09:06 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Fair point. Might be because he has the media on his side, and has the ability to frame issues (pro-corruption/anti-corruption) (pro-torture/anti-torture) in simple, media friendly ways. That's a talent. It's similar to Reagan's, and not to be dismissed.

One thing about the Democrats. It's been since LBJ's time that they have been able to take a stand on an issue that is both simple, easy to understand and unambiguously popular. About the only time the Demos have an easy to understand message, it's "US out of _____ Now!" "Well, it's complicated" is just not a very persuasive message, most of the time.

Posted by: Appalled Moderate at December 16, 2005 10:26 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

So let's hope. Many Iraqis are sane enough to see the consequences if workable measures are not found. It is f course true that some of the parties involved have shown inclinations to rule by the gun, but a bit of hope is a good thing, perhaps there are ways through this.

angela, the lack of hope in some quarters isn't based on a lack of faith in the Iraqis being able to figure things out for themselves, its based on the fact that they aren't (and won't be, as long as Bush is running things) being allowed to figure things out for themselves.

Posted by: lukasiak at December 17, 2005 01:03 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

regardless of how you view Bush or the entire Iraqi debacle, this is one moment of hope..


I have a son on the way over there... I guess Hope is all Ive got..

Posted by: rick at December 17, 2005 05:34 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Still, we cannot really predict the future, except to have the humility to realize that random happenstance, good decisions and bad ones, the actions of states near and far, and myriad other variables--all will play their roles in the coming months as Iraq continues its voyage towards a variety of possible scenarios that remain unknowable at the present time."

Which is probably wh Democrats keep insisting that the Prez lay out his plans in excrutiating detail, while refusing to commit themselves to anything much in particular.

When it became clear that Dec. 15th would be yet another known benchmark reached, the naysayers took to muttering that it would be a meaningless victory if the Sunnis held back. With that participation undeniably demonstrated on Thursday, what's left except to warn of more tough days to come (as if the Prez hadn't voiced such cautions time and again), and to remind us that Mistakes Have Been Made (as if this hard won election day were just another blind-hog-finds-acorn piece of luck)? It's not. It's a stunning achievement on the part of both Americans and Iraqis regardless of what follows.

Posted by: Judith Hanes at December 17, 2005 09:58 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I didn't get to see the movie called "Bush or the Entire Iraqi Debacle" -- it must have had a brief run, but no doubt it will be up for Oscars next time around.

But, boy, I sure do see references to it all the time. Reminds me of the news stories during Lincoln's terms in office. Our Civil War was sure a debacle, but then what war is free of mistakes? And what was preserving our common union worth?

The Western world played kingdom-making two generations ago and they left us to clean up after them. This is merely a variation of "the sins of the fathers."

So far, the outcome in Iraq seems rather amazing, considering the obstacles we faced and the configurations our presence has changed in that whole area of the world.

What are we supposed to do, regularly produce immacuate conceptions of "conflict" that are deathless, harmless, and allow everyone to live happily ever after?

I am waiting for someone -- perhaps the NYT -- to complain that Bush hasn't resurrected the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens that Hussein murdered....

What a strange moral universe, where death should not exist and mistakes are never permitted.

Posted by: dymphna at December 22, 2005 12:45 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Posted by: Vaporizer Review at December 26, 2005 02:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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