There was certainly something inspiring about the Iraqi people--or at least, a substantial portion of them--taking their destiny into their own hands last weekend, and the election is obviously going to move the situation in Iraq off center pretty quickly. It will probably offer the United States an opportunity to move in a new and possibly more hopeful direction. Whether we shall take that opportunity, however, and whether events will vindicate the decision to invade Iraq in the first place, remains to be seen.
The election's most important result, apparently, will be to confirm that there are three Iraqs, not one. The Kurds, the most sympathetic to the American presence and American aims, not only voted for the Assembly but staged an informal referendum on independence, which is expected to carry handily and send some shock waves through the whole region. The Sunnis generally did not vote, especially in the strongholds of the insurgency, indicating that the election did nothing to pacify them. But the Shi'ites voted for a broad-based slate that apparently will be the overwhelming winner, swamping the contending state led by Prime Minister Alawi. That, really, is the story of the election: the assumption by the majority Shi'ites, whose participation in the insurgency has only been intermittent, of political power in Iraq for the first time.
The next critical point involves the future of Alawi. In any true parliamentary democracy such an election result means a change of government, and even though the newly elected Assembly isn't a sovereign body, many Shi'ites will expect the same. This will test the Bush Administration and could destroy the credibility of the election, if we refuse to allow Alawi to give way. If he does step down, we will presumably be dealing for the first time with an Iraqi leader who is not primarily an American client, and who may make uncomfortable demands such as a pledge not to establish American bases or a timetable for an American withdrawal.
Meanwhile, however, there is no evidence that the election hurt the insurgency as yet. Attacks continue at a high rate and seem to be increasing in effectiveness, even though no more American armored vehicles have been reported as destroyed. The Sunnis, in short, still have to be pacified by force, and the destruction of Fallujah has certainly not had a decisive effect. The election hasn't ended the insurgency, any more than the 1967 South Vietnamese election (which actually had much less decisive results, as Generals Thieu and Ky won less than 40% of the vote) put an end to the Viet Cong. And if a new Shi'ite dominated government takes over, it may not have much appeal for the Sunni masses.
What could change is American strategy for creating a counterweight to the insurgency, police and security forces that can begin to reduce it. So far, apparently, we have tried to form a non-sectarian, government-run army and police force trained by Americans. This has not worked; the forces are vulnerable to constant insurgent attacks and have frequently refused to fight--very much like the South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War. The only reliable anti-insurgent Iraqis have been, significantly, Kurdish militias.
Although the press has not paid much attention to this, Shi'ite militias have also been forming and training--some with Iranian help--all around the southern part of the country. They erupted onto the front pages twice last year when Moqtar Al-Sadr took the offensive in Shi'ite cities, but American forces beat him back and he has not renewed the struggle. His, however, are far from the only such units. The question before the Americans is whether we should allow a new government to start relying upon these indigenously recruited forces, along with the Kurds, to secure Shi'ite areas (as they are apparently already doing, given the relative quiet there), and eventually, perhaps, to try to start rolling back the Sunni insurgency--initially, one would think, in Baghdad. Alternatively--and this in my opinion would be by far the most promising strategy--the new government, having established itself in Shi'ite areas and shown that it disposes of some reliable forces, might call upon the leadership of the insurgency to negotiate a truce and a plan for an Iraq based on three regions.
Such a solution will not meet the original objectives of the Bush Administration. The Shi'ite government is likely to give Islam a big political role, Iran will have scored a victory by helping establish a Shi'ite government in an Arab state, the new government is most unlikely to endorse a permanent American presence, and American contractors may well find it impossible to work safely in Iraq for many years to come. Nor will the new government be likely to open friendly relations with Israel, the promise with which Achmed Chalabi apparently wooed the Pentagon. But the Shi'ites will have secured their freedom and an expansionist dictatorship will be gone, and that, one should think, would strike most of the Middle East as a step forward.
That, of course, is an optimistic scenario. Nothing, to begin with, will improve matters in Iraq until some progress is made against an insurgency that still seems to be increasing in strength and making basic economic recovery impossible in most of Iraq. The country may easily descend into a long and bloody civil war among the three major factions, while terrorists trained in Iraq fan out around the Middle East and around the world. Middle class Iraqis have already been fleeing the country in droves, and it may be a long time, if ever, before the lives of the Iraqi people return to anything close to normal. The American military will have suffered severe human and material wear and tear, and it will probably be impossible to build any international consensus for a war with Iran or North Korea. (That, of course, is not a bad thing--either war would be far more disastrous than this one--but meanwhile, the neoconservatives in the Bush Administration are holding firmly to the idea that one must never negotiate in good faith with dedicated adversaries and ruling out any diplomatic solutions to the Iranian or North Korean problems.) Another possibility is that the Administration will simply refuse to let an Iraqi government that does not endorse our objectives come to power--the same thing that the Johnson Administration did in Vietnam in 1964-65, leading eventually to the imposition of military rule, since no civilian leadership really wanted an American-led war. President Bush, however, has said more than once that we will endorse whatever decision the Iraqi people make. He will have a difficult decision to make if they cannot agree on a single decision.
Americans have always rejoiced when other nations regained their freedom--even those like myself who are generally dubious that foreign nations, like our own, can or should take the initiative in liberating others. We still have no idea, however, if the long-term outcome in Iraq will be grounds for rejoicing. The destruction of a government, as Colin Powell tried to warn George W. Bush, is a huge, risky undertaking, however noble one's ultimate goal. What neoconservatives have never understood is the interest of the world's leading power in promoting stability, as opposed to anarchy, and defending, not attacking, international law and international order. Buoyed by the fantasy that Ronald Reagan's policies alone decisively brought down Communism (even though the identical policies had failed to do so in earlier decades), they have boldly set about to topple a whole series of regimes. The world looks on in horror as the United States scours the world for dragons to slay. We need opposing voices here at home to insure against the contingency that this policy simply will not work.