There’s little point in denying, as some people were wont to do, that the election in Iraq on Sunday was a significant step toward the possibility of a reasonably stable Iraq. It went better than almost everybody except the most optimistic of observers expected. While the outcome could be the beginning of a genuine political process that might lead to an independent and relatively stable Iraq, however, the most serious challenges still lie ahead.
It was both inspiring and somewhat heartrending to see the kind of jubilation many Iraqis showed on Sunday. Dancing in the streets, believing that what they were doing not only took courage, which it did, but believing that it was the key to a better life in Iraq almost made you want to join them. Almost.
The notion that entrusting more of our lives to a political process participated in by as many people as possible is one of the enduring superstitions of modern times, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The fact remains that government as an institution has no resources of its own to spread around; it has only what it can seize from the people through forced exactions, then redistribute to those who are fashionable for the moment or politically favored. Even the notion that Iraq’s government will eventually be able to finance itself nicely through oil revenues rests on the supposition that the oil industry in Iraq will continue to be a government monopoly, the resources made available by nature and made valuable by industrialization elsewhere simply seized through the power of the state, rather than being in private hands, where it would be operated more efficiently.
There is a tendency, apparent in much of the media coverage, to treat voting as a virtual sacrament in the sacred religion of democracy. This tendency is profoundly misguided. Voting in no way assures a wise government or even a free or orderly society.
It is also worthwhile to remember that American officials were similarly ecstatic in 1967 in Vietnam, when an election there yielded a large turnout.
Hoping for Something Better
But put that aside for a moment. Sometimes acting even on the basis of myths is a sign of willingness to put the shoulder to the wheel and deliver the effort needed to improve a country, family, or tribe. If Sunday’s turnout represents a widespread determination of Iraqis to participate in their own governing, to make the place work, the election could lend stability and political backbone to the new government in the face of more insurgent violence to come indeed, which has already begun.
Millions of Iraqis voted Sunday, many thousands of them within earshot of the mortar and suicide-bombing attacks that took about 40 lives on election day and many the day before. In a display of some physical courage, thousands stood hours in exposed lines waiting to vote.
The real significance of this single day of voting, of course, will become apparent only weeks, months, perhaps years from now. It will be a while before we can tell whether Iraqis are learning to live with one another in a regime of civility and relative tolerance.
One may hope that in the process some Iraqis will learn that the order and the sense that it is safe to live one’s life in pursuit of something better for oneself and one’s family, to work, laugh, and play without worrying excessively that has been so tragically missing in Iraq does not come from the top down but from the bottom up.
Nobel economist and philosopher Friedrich von Hayek elucidated in many of his writings the concept of "spontaneous order," the order that arises when people are allowed to make their own decisions about their own lives and to trade freely and voluntarily among themselves. Being based on voluntary decisions, such order is more stable than the kind of order governments try to impose through force from the top down. Hayek put flesh on the bare bones maxim of the 19th century French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon who wrote back when many people equated socialism with liberty, before so much practice had made manifest the contradictions that "liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order."
Will Iraqis begin to understand this bit of wisdom and tend to their own gardens more assiduously, thus laying the groundwork for a better life? Or will they become disillusioned as it becomes apparent that having a state mechanism in place, put there putatively through the enthusiastic consent of the governed, our era’s version of the "divine right of kings," is far from a guarantee that life will get better?
What signals might we look for in the next few weeks and months?
The first will be whether insurgent violence, especially violence against those who exercised their voting privilege, increases in the next few days.
As Marina Ottaway, who focuses on steps toward democracy in the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, reminded me in a phone conversation last week, one consequence of essentially locking down the country for three days is that those inclined to watch knew that the only people on the streets in Iraqi cities Sunday were voters. Will they be targets in the next few days or even weeks? The size of the turnout alone makes such attacks on voters more difficult to carry out and less likely to be effective. But if the insurgents are desperate enough (or confident enough; it is almost impossible to judge which it might be from the outside), some attacks on voters could occur.
Over the next few days, we also will learn more about the composition of the electorate and the resulting 275-seat national assembly. Among the Shias, who by sheer numbers should constitute a solid majority, were more votes cast for religious parties led by clerics or by the more secular parties led by interim prime minister Iyad Allawi and the curiously resurgent Ahmed Chalabi, who may be finding that being dropped like a hot potato by the U.S. government and the neocons increased his credibility in Iraq?
The feeling here is that a good showing by the relatively secular Shias will be better for stability. Even though Ayatollah Sistani has for the most part been a force for good sense and minimal use of violence, many fear that if the more intensely religious Shias find themselves on top they will be tempted to impose an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq. I suspect that a serious attempt would be a formula for division, perhaps even civil war, and it’s likely that Sistani understands this. Even so, the more secular Shias might be more inclined to compromise and moderation through the two-edged sword of the political process.
What Manner of Constitution?
The next issue involves how the interim government goes about writing a constitution. Will Sunni representatives participate? Will the constitution be written largely by foreign experts and Iraqi lawyers? If so, it is less likely to be seen as credible by the Iraqi people.
The interim constitution in place now, largely drafted by Americans, is premised more on individual rights than group rights. Despite the best (or worst) efforts of various political multiculturalists and collectivists, the individual rights approach is still apparently the dominant American paradigm, at least when we’re exporting constitutions. Certainly I’m an individual rights type, but it’s useful to know that in Iraq most people view tribal and religious loyalties as paramount.
It will be interesting to see whether they just tinker around the edges of the interim constitution or tear it up and start afresh, which would presumably make it make it more authentically Iraqi but might make it less likely to develop into a freer and more affluent place. One approach could be a “concessional” constitution, as in Lebanon or Bosnia, where representatives of significant religious and ethnic groups are guaranteed positions of influence in the new government. This might alleviate intergroup tensions in the short run, but it also could cement the idea of group identity and delay the emergence of tolerance of individuals within groups who have different positions on important issues.
A political culture that values both individual and national aspirations more than group solidarity is not an easy thing to develop. However, it comes close to being the key to developing a genuinely civil society.
In all this analysis, it is important to remember that the most significant American interest is an Iraq that poses little danger to its neighbors, either by being a center of chaos or, over time, harboring a regime with aggressive intentions. It is most unlikely that Iraq will become a model of democratic or libertarian utopianism any time soon, if ever. The more modest goal of an Iraq that does not threaten regional peace, however, is realistic.
For those who opposed the war and would rather see the occupation end sooner rather than later, the election is good news. For a change, I find myself wanting to agree with the administration and Fox News on that score, even while rejecting the utopian Wilsonianism of the inaugural address and the desire to use Iraq as a base to mess with other Middle Eastern countries one found in the State of the Union speech.
The plans of the neocons may still be grandiose, and there seem to be elements in the administration, beginning with the president, who share that vision of unending intervention. But reality has a way of intruding, as it has recently with news that the Marines the Marines! missed their monthly recruiting goal in January. The neocons might seem to think that expansion of the military will be relatively easy and painless, but one wonders whether the American people have the stomach for endless wars. That healthy attitude, along with what seems to be a good outcome in the election, just might make an end to the U.S. occupation and the development of an independent, stable Iraqi government more likely than it might have seemed on Saturday.