The Magazine

"Happy Days!"

The Iraqi elections really could be a turning point.

Dec 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 15 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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THE PURPLE INK on 11 million Iraqi fingers had not yet dried after an unprecedented, almost miraculous exercise in democratic freedom--and already there were querulous American critics working hard to make light of the whole thing. "Experts Cautious in Assessing Iraqi Election," ran the headline on a Friday Washington Post story by Robin Wright; "High Turnout, Low Violence a Positive Step, but Not a Turning Point, Analysts Say." And indeed, the indefatigable Ms. Wright had telephoned her usual cast of sour experts, each of whom was eager to help explain why, whatever else it might be, the peaceful election of a national assembly for a fully self-governing Arab democracy was Not a Turning Point. Elsewhere in the Post, former Clinton assistant secretary of state Susan Rice took the occasion of Iraq's elections to reject, with a bit of a sneer, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's assertion that democracy in Iraq serves American security interests.

Funny, isn't it? We seem to remember that the Clinton administration's declared foreign policy doctrine was something called "democratic enlargement." No longer operative, it seems. Will any leading Democrat, other than Joe Lieberman, bring himself to unambiguously celebrate this eruption of democracy in the heart of the Arab world?

In Iraq, just about everyone is celebrating. "Happy days!" cheered Salim Saleh to a New York Times reporter. "Before, we had a dictator, and now we have this freedom, this democracy," Emad Abdul Jabbar, a 38-year-old Sunni, told the Times. "This time, we have a real election, not just the sham elections we had under Saddam, and we Sunnis want to participate in the political process." "We are so happy," Sahera Hashim told the Financial Times. "We hope for security, good life. We have suffered too much in the past." The mayor of Ramadi, an insurgent and Sunni stronghold, compared the elections to a wedding: "Right now, the city is experiencing a democratic celebration." Another Sunni man told a Post reporter, "All my neighborhood is voting. God willing, after the elections things will be good."

The biggest story of this election, apart from its obvious milestone character, is the staggeringly high Sunni turnout. In October we were being assured, by the usual experts, that the passage of the constitutional referendum was a disaster, another of many final nails in the coffin of Iraqi democracy: The Sunnis would now never participate in the electoral process. It turns out that they did participate, and they did so with eager anticipation that through the new democratic process their voices could be heard and their interests protected.

It also turns out that one of the major reasons Sunnis had not participated before was fear that they would be killed by terrorists and insurgents. This time, with 160,000 American troops and thousands of newly trained Iraqi soldiers and police, there was a sense of security. "Last time, if you voted, you died," Abdul Jabbar Mahdi, a Sunni, told the Times's Dexter Filkins. "God willing, this election will lead to peace." As Filkins notes, "Comments from Sunni voters, though anecdotal, suggested that a good number of them had stayed away from the polls in January not because they were disenchanted with the democratic process, but because they were afraid of being killed."

Not a turning point? The participation of the Sunnis in such high numbers by itself marks this election as a watershed. Either something dramatic has happened to Sunni attitudes, or true Sunni feelings were previously suppressed. Among the Sunnis he interviewed, the Times's John Burns found "a new willingness to distance themselves from the insurgency, an absence of hostility for Americans, a casual contempt for Saddam Hussein, a yearning for Sunnis to find a place for themselves in the post-Hussein Iraq." Zaydan Khalif, 33, wrapped himself in the Iraqi flag as he headed to the polls. "It's the national feeling," he explained. According to the Los Angeles Times, in Sunni-dominated Falluja voters chanted "May God protect Iraq and Iraqis." The majority of Sunnis appear to have decided to cast votes rather than plant bombs. One Sunni man told a reporter, "We do not want violence and for others to say Sunnis are spearheading the violence in Iraq." Amer Fadhel Hassani, a Sunni resident of Baghdad, said, "If we get more seats, it will be quieter. The ones who were absent in January will now have a voice."

They have a voice partly because of the apparent success of the recently adopted American/Iraqi counterinsurgency strategy of "clear and hold." There may now be a realization among Sunnis that the insurgency is not winning, and thus may not be the best way for them to recover their lost power--or even to strengthen their bargaining position. Sunni fence sitters seem to be tilting toward involvement in the political process. A more active counterinsurgency strategy--and the presence of 160,000 American troops--has not, as some predicted, reduced Sunni participation in the political process or engendered greater hostility and violence. On the contrary, the extra troops helped provide the security that made it safer for Sunnis and others to vote, and for democracy to take root. If American and Iraqi troops continue to provide basic security, and if Iraq's different sects and political groups now begin to engage in serious, peaceful bargaining, then we may just have witnessed the beginning of Iraq's future.

And not only Iraq's future. One 50-year-old Shiite schoolteacher told the Los Angeles Times, "I am proud as an Iraqi because our country is becoming a center of attraction for all Arab countries. The new situation in Iraq, the democratic system, is starting to put pressure on the Arab systems to make some changes toward democracy." Such thoughts cannot yet be freely expressed in the salons of Washington, D.C., and New York City. But they seem to make sense in today's Iraq.

Has this one election settled everything, or even anything? Is Iraq now safely on the path to a durable democracy? Of course not. One voter told a New York Times reporter, "Iraqis aren't used to democracy, we have to learn it." True enough. They will have to learn it, and this learning process will take time and be attended by many backward steps, many errors, and many crises. But now, at least, they have a chance.

Iraqis would not have had that chance had the United States chosen to leave Saddam Hussein in power. They would not have had that chance if American troops had been withdrawn or reduced from the already inadequate levels established after the invasion in 2003. And they will lose that chance if the United States now begins a hasty reduction of forces. Burns reports that even Sunnis unhappy with the American presence favor only a "gradual drawdown," and only if Iraq has achieved a sufficient level of security and stability. "Let's have stability, and then the Americans can go home," one Iraqi store owner told Burns. Informed that President Bush was saying exactly the same thing, this man replied: "Then Bush has said it correctly".

-Robert Kagan and William Kristol