DESPITE CLEAR STATEMENTS from U.S. and Iraqi officials that the historic Iraqi elections scheduled for January are desirable, possible, and legally required under Iraqi law in January, some in the policy and diplomatic community are getting cold feet--they are urging a delay. This would be a terrible mistake. And that's why President Bush's clear and forceful declaration that "it's time for Iraqi citizens to go to the polls" is important--and exactly right.
The January elections are indeed historic. They will elect a 275 member National Assembly that will, among other things, oversee the drafting of a permanent constitution.
Proponents of delaying the elections have seized upon a request by (mostly) Sunni parties and elder statesman to renew their case. And, with the prospect of increased violence in Iraq, in the run-up to elections, such calls will only get louder. While this desire to hold-off elections until conditions improve is understandable, it ignores what we can do over the next two months to set the elections up for success. Moreover, delaying the elections would be counterproductive and possibly imperil our strategic objectives in Iraq.
There is no doubt that Sunni ambivalence and anger towards the new Iraq project is a cause for serious concern and attention for both the interim Iraqi government and the United States. Moreover, the prospect of widespread non-participation by Sunnis in the forthcoming elections--whether because of a voluntary boycott or security concerns--is troubling. But the proposed alternative of delaying the elections is far worse.
As a matter of principle, delaying the elections would reward the brutal campaign of violence that has beheaded innocents, targeted Iraqi civilians (including children lining-up for candy), and sought to bury a promising Iraqi future before its birth. In practice, it would encourage more violence and demoralize innocent, fence-sitting Iraqis (including certain political elites) who would like to believe in a better future, but fear the thugs who run the illegal checkpoint down the street today. It would also feed conspiracy theories about American intentions in Iraq, and do nothing to satisfy those Sunni clerics who have pledged to boycott any Iraqi election while there are foreign troops on Iraqi soil.
Moreover, an election delay would shatter the interim government's fragile and constructive relationship with the Shia, the long-repressed majority of the population in Iraq. A delay would anger the powerful and indispensable Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani (whose office has already announced a delay to be "unacceptable"), and provoke the rage of rank and file Shiites. More ominously, it would undermine Sistani (and his indirectly constructive approach) and powerfully stir the volatile micro-politics within the Shia community. Under these circumstances, Shiite radicals led or inspired by Moqtada Al Sadr would be handed a dangerous political opportunity. And this fragmentation within the Shia bloc would be a gift to radicals of all stripes in Iraq, as it could serve as kindling for a wider, deeper, and possibly, multi-confessional insurrection and/or civil war. These are extreme outcomes, but they are not unlikely ones. Think Smokey the Bear: single matches have started huge fires before.
WITH TWO MONTHS still to go, there is much that can be done to maximize the likelihood that the elections will be successful and legitimate, if not ideal. While execution is critical, the basic elements of the current strategy in Iraq are sound. Over the next two months:
* Iraqi and Coalition Forces should continue to mount bold, violent and targeted combat operations against insurgents wherever they are, but especially in the Sunni heartland. Ramadi and greater Baghdad are places of special significance. No single raid or operation will end the insurgency, but the cumulative effect of these take-downs over the coming months will weaken the enemy, and reassure weary Iraqis.
* Iraqi and Coalition Forces must amplify the effective impact of their combat operations with a comprehensive and integrated information operations campaign. Used thoughtfully, information is a force multiplier. Given the persistently negative Arab media and the virulence and adaptability of indigenous disinformation campaigns, it is critical that both the interim Iraqi government and the United States convey their messages loudly, clearly, and often. For its part, the interim Iraqi government must convey three simple messages: (1) The new Iraq is for all honest and law-abiding Iraqis; (2) The enemies of the new Iraq will be defeated; and (3) The new Iraq is inevitable. On the other hand, the United States must reiterate that its only interest in Iraq is assisting the emergence of a free, secure, and democratic Iraq.
* The interim Iraqi government must continue the mission-critical effort to politically engage the Sunni moderates. This, of course, will be inherently difficult. Even under the best of circumstances, any deal the new Iraq could offer to Sunnis is less than the social, political, and economic dominance they have been able to exercise throughout modern Iraqi history. But there is hope. Many Sunnis fear retribution from the ascendant Shiites at least as much as they resent losing their privileged position. Thus, a meaningful effort to reassure them that a new Iraq will be for, and protective of, all Iraqis (including Sunnis) may gain traction over time.
Our fundamental challenge in Iraq is that we have to play chess (keep our strategic interests in mind) and ping-pong (respond to daily events) at the same time. As we do this, we have to remember that every course of action entails risk. There is no such thing as a perfect plan, and no substitute for flexibility, judgment, courage and patience. While this desire to hold-off elections is understandable, delaying the elections would be a terrible mistake: it would bring us closer to consequences we should seek to avoid, and move us further from strategic objectives we must and can achieve.
Mario Mancuso, a national security expert and lawyer, is a combat veteran of Iraq. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.