In many Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, the story line depends on some sort of magic elixir or potion. Similarly, the advocates for a Brave New World tell us the comic opera called "democracy" flows from the magic of elections. Just hold elections, and presto!, wars vanish. Regrettably, the Brave New World’s music is not nearly so entertaining as that of Sir Arthur Sullivan, while its plot is even more absurd than most of Gilbert’s.
Two recent elections point to a grimmer reality. The first was in Iraq, for provincial councils. In Iraq, as in most of the world, the question is neither whether elections were held nor who won. The question on which social order depends is who accepts the results of an election. If elections are to substitute for war, not only the winners but also the losers must accept their outcome. Losers must give up power, patronage, one of the very few local sources of money (often lots of it), and possibly physical security as well, hoping for better luck next time, if there is a next time.
I suspect the odds of that happening in Iraq are small. The Washington Post recently quoted one U.S. officer who served as an adviser to Iraqi army units saying of Iraqi commanders, "When you got to know them and they’d be honest with you, every single one of them thought that the whole notion of democracy and representative government in Iraq was absolutely ludicrous."
That quote was in a piece by Tom Ricks, the Post‘s longtime defense correspondent, in the Feb. 15 "Outlook" section. Ricks goes on to say, "I don’t think the Iraq war is over, and I worry that there is more to come than any of us suspect."
Many of those closest to the situation in Iraq expect a full-blown civil war to break out there in the coming years. "I don’t think the Iraqi civil war has been fought yet," one colonel told me.
In such an environment, elections do not substitute for war but rather prepare the way for it. They exacerbate differences, heighten local conflicts, and lengthen the lists of "injustices" each party uses to justify fighting.
This unfortunate reality points again to what America needs to do in Iraq: get out now, fast, while it can. If we are lucky, history will grant us a "decent interval" between our departure and the next round of 4GW in Iraq. If we dawdle until the fighting ramps up again, we may find it difficult, politically if not militarily, to leave at all.
This brings us to another election, that in Israel. It is not clear what government will emerge from Israel’s vote. It is clear the Knesset has shifted to the right. From the standpoint of America’s interests, that is a negative outcome.
The danger is not only to prospects of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which are probably small in any event. The danger is that a new Israeli government in which Likud and voices to Likud’s right are stronger is more likely to attack Iran.
As I have said repeatedly in past columns, an attack on Iran by the U.S. or Israel threatens consequences disastrous to America. The worst potential consequence is the possibility of the destruction of the army the U.S. now has in Iraq. As almost no one in Washington seems to realize thanks, as usual, to hubris that possibility is all too real. All one need do to see it is look at a map. Iran sits alongside our main line of communications, supply, and retreat all the way from Baghdad to the straits of Hormuz. Add in the probability that various Shi’ite militias and perhaps much of the new Iraqi army as well would join with the Iranians in attacking us, and the possibility of finding 100,000 American troops in an operational Kessel is frighteningly evident.
Thus we find that in two overseas elections, the magic elixir has proven poisonous to the United States. The two reinforce one another in their toxic effects, the one threatening to hold us in Iraq, the other to entomb us there. As Tom Ricks concluded his piece in the Post, "In other words, the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably haven’t even happened yet." Thanks to two elections, they may be coming all the faster.