Now, Now. Let's Not Get All Excited Over This Election Thing.

| January 31, 2005 | Reply

I was reading Juan Cole’s blog (why? Hey, it’s worth keeping other points of view in sight, even if they’re wrong) last night and came across a rather interesting statement:

Iraq now faces many key issues that could tear the country apart, from the issues of Kirkuk and Mosul to that of religious law. James Zogby on Wolf Blitzer wisely warned the US public against another “Mission Accomplished” moment. Things may gradually get better, but this flawed “election” isn’t a Mardi Gras for Americans and they’ll regret it if that is the way they treat it.

Okay, I’ll pass over the “flawed ‘election’” comment because, other people are taking their whacks at that.

I want to expand on his use of John Zogby’s comment. Cole believes that we should be very very cautions and not actually celebrate the election as a big deal because…well…there’s trouble a-brewin’.

But what is that trouble?

Here’s the relevant part of Blitzer’s show, with Zogby and Brett McGurk, an Adviser with the CPA.

BLITZER: Welcome back.

An election-day survey is also providing some insight into how Iraqis feel about their country and where it’s headed.

Joining us now here in Washington, James Zogby. He’s the president of the Arab-American Institute as well as senior analyst for the Zogby International poll. And Brent McGurk worked in Iraq as a constitutional adviser to the former Coalition Provisional Authority.

Gentlemen, welcome to “LATE EDITION.”

And, Jim, let me start with you. One of the fascinating questions on your Zogby poll: “Should Iraq have an Islamic government?” You found 59 percent said no; 34 percent said yes.

Thirty-four percent seems like a pretty large number, that they want sort of a Shiite-led, fundamentalist government.

JAMES ZOGBY, PRESIDENT, ARAB-AMERICAN INSTITUTE: And note that, as we found on literally every question, a deep sectarian divide. So that while Sunni were decidedly against it — and that applies to both Kurds and Arabs — and Christians of course decidedly against, the Shia population was divided down the middle, with just a slight leaning toward Islamic government.

When you do a subset of that, strong supporters of Sistani and supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, they want an Islamic government. So the question is, the minority of the majority that has won, in fact, wants an Islamic government. And that could be a problem. We’ll have to watch and see where we go in the coming months.

BLITZER: How worried are you about that, Brett?

BRETT MCGURK, ADVISER, CPA: Well, frankly, define “Islamic government.”

What I think is very encouraging — there’s really two currents going on in Iraq right now.

First, the political leadership of the Shia political class — Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, Ibrahim Al Jafri — all of them saying over and over again, “We want to reach out to all groups in Iraq. We want the government to respect the Islamic traditions of Iraq. But we want the government to be undergirded by secular political leaders.” And I think we have to take that seriously.

In the interim constitution, Article 7 was fiercely debated by the political class in Iraq, these same figures who are now emerging after elections. And compromises were brokered between the Kurdish leadership, the Shia leadership and the Sunni leadership.

And it says we will respect the Islamic traditions of Iraq, but it’s a secular government. Islam is not the only source of law; it’s one of them.

BLITZER: Are you encouraged by what has happened today, looking at the overall situation in Iraq?

ZOGBY: Well, look, you know, the election could, in fact — what we found with our numbers — end up exacerbating existing divisions. There are deep divides in Iraq, and I worry about them.

And I don’t want to have a “mission accomplished” moment here. I think we need to take a deep breath. It’s good that Iraqis voted. They will now put together a national assembly that will move the country forward.

But I think there are deep problems that remain. And frankly speaking, we’re going to be watching over the next several months to see how they work through those problems. The divide with the Kurds is real. The divide between Sunni and Shia is real.

And I think we have to see how this is going to play out, rather than get caught up in hyperbole and assume that, in fact, problems are over and we’re now moving forward easily.

BLITZER: Your bottom-line assessment right now, you agree?

MCGURK: I absolutely agree. It’s a long road ahead. These elections are a first step in a process that’s going to unfold over the next year.

But there are institutional mechanisms in place to bring Sunni Arabs into the process at a number of points, in setting up the transitional government, in the constitutional process as well. So there’s room for…

ZOGBY: The important thing now is going to be that those mechanisms are in place. The point is that Iraqis are going to work this out themselves. And that, if anything, what this election has done, is now decidedly passed the torch. And frankly speaking, if they make the wrong moves, we can’t be a part of helping correct course.

BLITZER: Good advice from Jim Zogby, as usual. Don’t declare “mission accomplished” yet.

First, it’s important to note that nobody’s declaring “mission accomplished”. Well, wait. That’s not true. We’re declaring that the mission of holding the first free election in Iraq in 50 years or so is accomplished and if the President wants to fly another big banner saying so, well, I won’t argue with that.

But no one’s saying that the mission of bringing a lasting and stable democracy to Iraq is accomplished. That’s the long-term mission and even if one important and historic step in that overall mission was accomplished, we can’t pop the corks on all the champagne bottles quite yet.

I think, though, that Zogby’s concern is misplaced. He’s worried, because 36 percent of Iraqis said that they want an “Islamic government” this means that there are deep sectarian divides that could erupt sometime in the near future and that we won’t be able to “correct course”.

*sigh*

Sorry about that. This kind of talk exaperates me because it really does ignore the realities of demorcatic government. See, the fact is that people want their government to conform to all sorts of ideological molds. Democracies hold elections so that, in part, the voters can decide into which ideological mold(s) their government will fit until the next election. Then there’s another election and another and another and each time the voters make that same decision.

The important thing here is that it’s the majority whose decision is heeded, not the minority.

So when Zogby says that 34 percent of Iraqis want an “Islamic government”, it also means that 66 percent do not. And it’s the preference of those 66 percent that wins, not that of the minority.

Now, Zogby goes on to note that the overwhelming block of people who want an “Islamic government” aren’t spread all over the country, but are Shiite and, what’s more, that they’re a minority of that group.

So we’re not talking about a situation where, for instance, the majority of Kurds want that kind of government. That would be a potential problem because that belief would be a driving force behind one of the three big groups in the country. As it stands, though, this point of view isn’t very likely to make it out of the Shiite “caucus” much in the same way that minority points of view don’t make it out of Republican and Democrat caucuses in our country.

This concern that Cole and Zogby have just doesn’t seem like much of one, considering that it’s a minority view in two different ways. But what they also don’t sem to remember is that, in this country, a minority of the voters want a Democrat government. They’ve wanted one for the last four years. But in the last four years, save for some folks getting “caught up in hyperbole” I haven’t seen the election “exacerbating existing divisions” (because we’re as divided a nation now as we’ve been since we’ve been a nation) and we seem to have managed to work through the “deep problems that remain”. I’m fairly sure that the Iraqis can do the same, just as they have since the CPA took over last year.

McGurk had a pretty good point, too. What are we calling an “Islamic government”? Blitzer jumped to the conclusion that it meant “sort of a Shiite-led, fundamentalist government”. But maybe it means more of a government like the one in Turkey, which seems to be working pretty well and seems to have free elections regularly. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s better than, say, the way things are done in Syria or Iran. We really don’t know, though, what sort of Islamic government the minority could want any more than we’d know exactly what sort of “Christian government” a minority of Americans might want.

In all, I just can’t get as worked up as Cole is over this concern. Then again, I’m unsophisticated enough to feel real joy over yesterday’s elections and to keep the belief that once people get a good taste of liberty, they don’t very often vote to give it back.

So I say to Cole, “Lasseiz les bon temps roulet” – however that translates in Arabic.

Category: Our Foreign Policy

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