The Iraqi elections were a resounding success when contrasted with the expectations for them. Months ago, there were worries about whether elections could be held at all. Weeks ago, there were worries about having to delay the elections. Days ago, there were concerns of an Ashura Massacre-type of coordinated attack on polling places, if not a 9/11-type mass casualty event. There was hope that the turnout was going to be high, but the cost of the election in human lives was expected to be in the hundreds, if not the thousands. Turnout was far from certain, however---some opinion polls found that 70% of Iraqis wanted to vote, but how much would Zarqawi's posters of decapitated people with ink-dyed fingers deter them? Yesterday, the answer was provided.
Despite the insistence that it could not be done, based on the threats, the violence, and the death, the Iraqi people spoke. Loudly. When confronted with threats of death and dismemberment, they responded with a voter turnout percentage that may be higher than most U.S. presidential elections.
This is an enormous Iraqi accomplishment that has implications beyond the borders of Iraq. Indeed, the successful Iraqi elections should be viewed and lauded for their impact on the region and the world. In other words, this was not just a defeat for Zarqawi and the other terrorists in Iraq. These elections strike another serious blow against Islamofacisim. It may not be a mortal blow---I worry that it is closer to the beginning of the battle than to the end. However, this is an extremely important victory for several reasons.
First, the security situation in Iraq seems to be getting better and the terrorist/insurgent network in Iraq is being rolled up. Armed Liberal at Winds of Change lists 14 major members of the terrorist network that have been caught or killed since the battle for Falluja (scroll down). These people have all been caught recently. As another blog pointed out recently (I can’t remember which one or else I would link to it), it seems like the military is going after the Iraqi terrorists like a mob investigation. It started slow, waiting for the first big break. Slowly people are caught and interrogated; then, the organization can be rolled up more quickly and more effectively. Considering the large number of prominent figures caught in recent weeks, we might be in the middle of rolling up a major part of the network, so much so that it could have disrupted any large-scale attacks planned for the election. Granted, this is rank speculation, but it is remarkable that the major attacks were not carried out, and the number of terrorists caught recently could be why.
Second, while the security situation in Iraq has been poor at best and atrocious at worst, it is improving. The security for the election, however, was handled very well. Polling places were protected by several rings of Coalition and Iraqi forces. CNN lists 16 attacks on polling places Sunday. It is a tragedy that 44 people died in attacks on Sunday. Still, the expectations were that several hundred, if not thousands of people were to be killed. This was the focal point of the terrorists’ attacks, the event that they wanted to prevent among all others, and not only did they fail, they barely showed. Their failure demonstrated that the security situation in Iraq is improving. Despite the proliferation of targets on the day the terrorists were supposed to make the “streets run red with blood,” the Iraqi and Coalition forces protected thousands of polling places with lesser than expected loss of life.
There are also long-term strategic implications that arise from these elections. The combination of the Iraqi and Palestinian elections is a huge defeat for those who thought that elections could not be held in the Middle East. Democracy can come to the Middle East. It will not be the democracy that we know, nor may not be one we like, but the first domino has fallen. Iraqis have found out what it is like to be able to rule themselves. They will not soon relinquish that.
Also, this is a victory for our strategy to defeat terrorism. The administration has believed that the long-term defeat of terrorism involved democracy, since liberal democracies do not breed terrorists. Many people thought that the Middle East could never handle democracy, or that the United States could not successfully bring democracy to Iraq “at the end of a gun.” [ed.---Didn’t that happen several months ago in Afghanistan? I know, I know, but the point was still made by critics.] Iraq has held elections at the end of the gun. However, the people who were facing the wrong end of the gun were the terrorists. They blinked, and the Iraqi people did not.
The elections also have implications outside of Iraq. A free Iraqi electorate puts pressure on its neighbors. It puts pressure on Iran to be more accommodating with its people. Iraqi expats in Syria voted in Syria---what must the people of Syria think about Iraqi expats voting from a country where they are not able to vote for their own government?
Finally, if the votes in Iraq continue to be successful, it allows America to push much harder in diplomatic negotiations. Diplomacy is a complicated carrot and stick game. Before 9/11 terrorists’ perception of America as a threat ran along the line of, “what are they going to do, sue us?” Many of our enemies saw us as soft, and consequently did not respect the stick.
Now America has a policy of preemption. We have chosen to exercise it under two different circumstances, Afghanistan and Iraq. America has shown that it will act preemptively in order to protect itself.
Further, America is proving that it has the backbone to do the hard work in nation-building. The days of installing a strong-man are over. Failure in Iraq would have meant much more perceived trepidation on the part of American foreign intervention, which would have given our enemies more latitude in which to act. The success of these elections, combined with the signs of success in Iraq, gives America resources for negotiating with other countries---while we hopefully will not invade and depose other regimes, the large stick of invasion is there, which will hopefully encourage other countries to choose the carrot of reform.
Finally, democracy. Democratic countries do not tend to breed terrorists. Successful elections in Iraq move that country another step toward becoming a democracy. Successful elections in Iraq pressure surrounding countries toward reforming their governing systems. Successful elections in Iraq prove that democracy can take hold anywhere.
To be sure, not everything in Iraq is perfect. America will not be able to control the new government of Iraq---it will be run by Iraqis, for their benefit. Further, while the security situation seems to be getting better, we will not likely be able to significantly lower troop levels in the very near future. Also, better security and more intervention needs to occur in the Sunni areas for the elections later this year. Thus, Iraq remains a work in progress. It is, however, off to a good start.
I want to give a special thanks to everyone at Winds of Change which has been a fantastic resource for material on the war against terrorism.