The election in Iraq is a success to this point. The large numbers of Iraqis that turned up at the polls shows that I was mistaken when I wrote earlier that the Iraqis may not be ready for, or even want, democracy. They turned lives that had been lived under a brutal dictator, without a nascent movement for democracy, into a clamor for democratic self-rule within a matter of months of the beginning of the American occupation. Many people were surprised at the fervor shown by so many Iraqis not just on election day, but in the months leading up to it. The political mood in Iraq can easily be characterized as one of vigorous debate.
Along with the surprise at the apparent success of the elections has come a sense that things are beginning to wind down in Iraq, and that everyday life is improving according to plan. But this outlook is due solely to that surprise. Americans had been assured for months upon months that the elections would usher in a new era of fierceness in the Iraqi insurgency. The pundits from the left and even a substantial number of doubters from the right were predicting chaos and civil war to overtake any hope throughout the populace of Iraq, and ensure that American forces would finally be placed in untenable circumstances, just waiting for the slow withdrawal under fire that means defeat. When millions of Iraqis braved this danger and cast their ballots, in the United States, at least, ends began to be justified. In fact, however, Americans were surprised for no reason.
Iraqis had intended to vote from the day Saddam was overthrown. The vote is not an indication that things are improving in Iraq. Rather, they are indicative of the tenuous situation on the ground, and encompass part of the vast battlefield that is a country at war with itself. We have now begun to lull ourselves into complacency with the assurance that now that there has been a vote, the killing will stop. It has not, and it will not for some time. To this day, the most dangerous place in Iraq is the road from the airport to the center of Baghdad. If Iraq’s capital city is still not safe for its citizens and for American servicemen, then our job is still a ways from over.
The death toll for American forces has now topped 1,500. Does anyone even bother to keep track of Iraqi deaths anymore? My point is this: the war is not over. The situation on the ground is not improving. These are among the fiercest days of the insurgency. Anyone who believed we would be on the road to leaving Iraq now that ballots have been cast is dead wrong. Votes do not provide security in a war zone. People with guns do.
That being said, there is a foreseeable future in Iraq. If the American military and new Iraqi government are able to do what the South-Vietnamese government was not — that is, train indigenous soldiers to combat insurgents and provide security — then the situation will begin to improve. Iraq will become a stable democracy, and we can truly claim victory. But the obstacles are enormous.
First, Iraq needs a stable, representative government that can claim real representation from all three major factions of Iraq — Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd. Unless this first step is successful, the country will split along ethnic lines, and no longer will the insurgency consist of Baathist loyalists with a smattering of international terrorists. It will be civil war.
Second, Iraq needs an army capable of dealing with the insurgency. Unfortunately, there is a catch-22. Being in the Iraqi army is perceived as so dangerous that they are having a hard time getting recruits. And you need recruits to mold into trained soldiers. But the job will remain just as dangerous until they have enough trained soldiers to beat back the insurgency. This conundrum is causing headaches from the Pentagon to the Green Zone in Baghdad. Another problem is that recruiting could be worse. Although there are not enough recruits, there are more than we can train. The government will release no actual figures of Iraqis that are either trained or going through training. From the election last year to Scott McClellan’s podium in recent days, the number of both trained soldiers and raw recruits has varied from fifteen thousand to 150,000. Whatever the real number is, our military is far too busy fighting in Iraq to bother with training Iraqis. Possibly the only way these Iraqis are going to get trained is to take them out of Iraq and send them to camps in the United States and Europe. There they can not only begin training, but may actually be able to complete it. Training in Iraq always leads to the temptation to use the recruits before they are ready. The logistics of moving them thousands of miles back into Iraq will remove much of this temptation. Also, this is an opportunity to get the European Union more involved in Iraq. To this point, both they and us have a “we told you so” mentality about Iraq. They, over the lack of weapons of mass destruction, and we, over the success of the elections. These two great political bodies need to get over their differences. Although we brought European attitude towards the invasion on ourselves, I believe much of the onus belongs to Europe at this point. Europe has a huge stake in the future of the Middle East. Now is the time to stop quibbling and try to help make Iraq a stable country. Europe has tentatively put forth a willingness to train hundreds of troops. They need, in actuality, to train thousands.
Third, and what I believe will be the final outcome if the first two areas are successful, is infrastructure improvement. The lights still go out in Iraq. Bombs blow up water mains that don’t get repaired. The oil industry is a shambles. You can have representative government and highly effective security forces, but if people can’t refrigerate their food and have to keep dumping their shit in the backyard, eventually they’re going to get fed up, and undermine all the hard work that has gone before. Get the oil industry back on its feet, and with increasing world appetite, that pays for itself. To this point, I don’t believe the Iraqi oil industry should be held in private hands. The vast majority of the profit should go the government for disbursement to infrastructure improvements, and then spread among the people. This is begging for corruption on a mass scale, and also invites the kind of power atmosphere that leads to dictatorship, but if maintained in a mostly honest manner, is far better than allowing the bulk of profit to leave Iraq for Houston, Paris, London, Moscow, or wherever.
Turning to the wider Middle East, it is tempting to look at the invasion of Iraq as the impetus for the recent changes in the area. In many ways, the invasion and subsequent election have played a large part. But if we look at the Middle East and say that without the invasion, the wellspring of democracy would not have begun its slow trickle, then we begin to trap ourselves into the thought that the ends have justified the means. Despite what is written here in these pages, when it comes to the future of any given country outside of central Africa, I am an optimist. I believe that human suffering is a temporary situation that comes in waves, affecting the poorest to the richest countries in turn. I can always look at the future of a country in strife, and know that someday it will be over. Someday the citizens of that country will be able to look back on the past and know they overcame, or even simply survived. With that attitude, I look upon Iraq twenty years from now. The worst case scenario holds that Iraq will be nothing more than lines on an old map, that it will be broken up and its people distrustful of its former parts. Tribal violence will rule in an Asian mainland version of Somalia. This is unlikely. Countries as feral as Somalia really have to be worked at. I look at Iraq and see a country functioning in the world economy, returning to its ancient role as the center of Middle Eastern culture, and it burns me up that starting the war will seem like a good thing through the lens of history.
What sort of precedent have we set for ourselves? If Iraq works out in this optimistic fashion, despite all the lies, empty rhetoric, and lack of planning, what will that say about the United States’ willingness to wage war? Will we be ready to answer the trumpet call at the drop of a hat, for even the smallest of perceived transgressions? If we overcome this huge obstacle we have made for ourselves in building a Middle Eastern democracy, where do we stop? What job becomes too large? Will there be cost-benefit analyses dealing with the amount of acceptable deaths, both foreign and domestic, in the pursuit of building democracies? And how do we deal with real threats when we are stretched to the limits pursuing the more artistic aspect of building a nation for building’s sake? We have to be extremely careful that we do not place our leaders on a pedestal for a job well done, while forgetting the lies that led us to invade a sovereign nation without justification in the first place. That’s right, no justification. Despite what is said at the White House or Capitol Hill these days, we went to war over a threat, not to build a nation or spread a democracy. Those were supposed to be secondary considerations, but in fact they were the real reasons we went to war. There was never any threat, but we would not have gone to war without the American people believing there was one. The people who planned this adventure should not be praised when all is said and done. They should be ostracized for getting us involved in unnecessary conflict, costing the lives of tens of thousands of people.
Also, the invasion of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan are not the only reasons popular sentiment has begun its shift towards more freedoms in the Middle East. It is part of a broader movement brought on by the death of Yasser Arafat, and the willingness of Ariel Sharon to take the small step of angering a large part of his constituency in removing Jewish settlements from Palestine. It is also the folly of whoever killed Rafik Hariri, bringing about popular upheaval and clamor for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. And it is also the successful protests in Kiev last year that led to the defeat of the Russian-backed candidate for president. Indeed, the governments of both Saudi Arabia and Egypt are involved in damage control due to a rise in political interests. Saudi Arabia is pretending to have real elections, and Egypt has ostensibly said it will allow opposition candidates to run for president, but the fine print says they must be approved by the ruling majority.
Now is a time for change in the Middle East. Citizens in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, and elsewhere can look to the citizens of Iraq for inspiration. They can also look far abroad. We can’t take all the credit for people in the Middle East finally beginning their painful rise towards individual liberties, nor can we say it is inevitable. Oppression of the like Americans can’t normally conceive is still the order of the day in many places, and removing Saddam Hussein isn’t going to change any of that. After all, unlike security, it wasn’t our guns that impressed people in the Middle East the most. It was the votes.