The election, part 1

Last year, in February, we made a spotty analysis of Iraq’s situation and why Sistani’s call for an election was important. Surveyors of property consult previous plats to orient their plumb lines; purveyors of opinion should follow the same procedure. This, then, is what we wrote back then:

“February 4, 2004:

Summarizing the LI position, it would go something like this: Bush’s argument for war disguised an all to familiar American imperial adventure. As in Latin America, the administration was trying to take out a hostile dictator and replace him with a compliant puppet, under whose benevolent gaze the U.S. could spread its fine mesh of corporate interest, engulfing the resources and wealth of a conquered protectorate.

What Iraq demonstrated is that intervention on this scale, and at this distance, is not going to happen. The Empire has limits. More, the unintended consequence of the intervention was the removal of a truly horrendous regime, and the opening to an at least tentatively democratic one. Good news.

This happened as the result of two happy accidents. The first accident was the sheer incompetence and unpreparedness of the Americans in advancing towards their goal. The idea of stuffing a swindler like Chalabi down the throat of the population was quickly abandoned as impractical. The ‘liberated’ population didn’t follow the script. The looting destroyed vital infrastructure, while the infrastructure itself, after eleven years of sanctions, was incredibly decayed. Misstep after misstep was made by the imperialists, who were most successful, apparently, at building concrete berms to keep out the dangerous wogs.

Meanwhile, happy accident number two was happening. The resistance turned out to be dogged and disruptive. Like the Bush administration, the resistors were guided by a bad intention – a pure power grab – and a much worse history, that of mass murderers. They squared off against the occupiers, and as they did so, they relieved the Iraqi population from the consequences that would have ensued from a successful Bush plan – puppet status, nationwide respectable looting to the advantage of corporations and exiles. This more subtle looting, it turns out, has been forced to prey only on the American taxpayer, who is pumping money on the grand scale into keeping Cheney's retirement benefits very, very real.

The tide turned, we think, with the capture of Saddam H. This capture, in one blow, operated against the Americans and the resistance. The utter bankruptcy of the resistance, and its futility, was finally and conclusively exposed, on the one hand. On the other hand, the last excuse not to resist the Americans was blown away. The Iraqi masses could now operate without fearing the return of Saddam. And their first action was to counter the occupation.

This is why we think the elections Sistani wants are so important. Both the Bushies and the liberals are opposed to them, because they both share a managerial ideology. They both talk about democracy, but they want it organized to the point where their side retains power.

Well, we’d love to see secular democratic socialists retain or return to power in Iraq, but we believe process can't be separated from content; that top down implementation of a secular state evolves top down governance, usually by the military. If you think that insulating a progressive group against real politics works, look around you in the world. It is a fatal and stupid thing to do. It creates a malignant alliance between progressives in the country and their sponsors out of the country. This, in turn, attenuates the rooting of the progressive wing within the country until it represents, to the people at large, one more aspect of a colonialist ethos.

The consequence of a direct election might well be a triumph for a reactionary, theocratic party. But we think that if that party is going to triumph, it is going to triumph no matter how much the NGOs think they can manage the country into their various versions of liberal democracy. Far better to strengthen the parties that oppose theocracy within the country from the beginning, far better to take up the election challenge, have them begin to understand the mechanism of electoral politics, than to try to manage a detour around "petty politics". Which is why we are rather disappointed that people who truly do want to see the triumph of a secular state that measures its surrenders to neo-liberalism against an ideal of social welfare are locked into the scared mode. Sure, Iraq teeters on a blood bath of factional struggle – but, as nobody seems to remember, the Kurds went through the same struggle in the 90s, and seem to have not only survived it, but become much more secular, democratic, etc., etc. Not that we think the two Kurdish warlord parties are the last word in secularism .. however, the opportunity exists, there. Given that the Americans are blindly working towards freeing Iraq of debt and repairing the infrastructure, whoever wins the elections will have a better position than Iraq has had since 1979.

This isn't to underestimate the body count. Actually, it is hard to even estimate the body count in this country -- nobody counts it. However, the alternative body count was worse -- the attrition from sanctions, the hopelessness of Saddam, the blighting of all promise.

Of course, we are probably wrong about much of this, re the real situation in Iraq.”

Now the election is upon us, in two weeks. LI’s post showed a peculiar blindness to the fact that an accidental outcome does not automatically erase the force that brought it about. In fact, that force might refuse to recognize it. So it has proved with the resistance and the Americans. The Americans, who were opposed to elections last February, finally conceded, due to a combination of the insurgency among the Sunni and Sadr’s uprising among the Shi’ites. However, the American concession was not such as to leave either the mechanism of the election or the leadership of Iraq to the Iraqis. A number of decisions were made with the intention of maximizing American influence. These included a large provision for the votes of Iraqi exiles – many of whom live in the U.S. and have as much stake in Iraq as the American descendents of Irish immigrants have in the fate of Ireland -- and the generation of a complex national procedure that was thought, at the time, to guarantee the strong presence of America’s most faithful allies in the country, the Kurds.

On the other hand, the resistance has grown stronger in its reach, and more conscious of its lack of strength. Thus, the resistance has blindly and naturally pursued a strategy that would aggrandize its power. For the resistance to have a chance at gaining nationwide footing, the occupation must continue. Of course, with the destruction of the Iraqi army under Bremer, one could make the case that the immediate evacuation of the Americans would be good for the only organized armed force in Iraq – but we think that severely underestimates the strength of various militias associated with the major Shi’ite factions.

The American dilemma in Iraq is this: after committing the war crime of destroying Fallujah, the Americans have pretty much short circuited any possibility of alliance making among Iraq’s Sunnis. This lands the Americans in a contradictory position vis a vis their global strategy in the region, which rests – and will continue to rest – on alliances with the most fundamental Sunni powers in the region – Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. This is a real squeeze. While able to finesse the alliance with Israel with the Saudis, repressing Iraq’s Sunnis on the Fallujah scale will, eventually, make very expensive trouble with the Saudis.

So, was support for the election a delusion? Is the election terminally bad?

Delusion, to LI, is the idea that some generalization will absorb the particulars of Iraq’s current situation. War is all about the upending of generalizations – and the generals who make them. When Sistani called for an election, back in 2003, he was absolutely right. Perhaps LI should have been more pessimistic about the material process that would result in an election under occupation. In the end, the election Sistani got was badly structured, while the use of American forces as an instrument to strike against the Sunnis has so distorted the possible election result, that the government we can expect after January will certainly not have the legitimacy that, even given the flawed process, it could have had – and for this, certainly, the Shi’ite leadership is partly to blame. While Allawi’s gamble in allowing the decimation of Fallujah is understandable, though sick (how else was he to stake out political ground?), Sistani and Sadr’s silence was a huge mistake.

These are the vicissitudes of election under occupation. However, we still believe in the election route to the goal of freeing Iraq from the occupation and maintaining, for the moment, its national integrity. This, in spite of the farce of the ballot and the voting process, as described in the Washington Post:

“With the elections to pick a 275-member National Assembly just two weeks away, details are emerging about the Iraq campaign and balloting…. Many of the worries are shared by specialists from international, nongovernment organizations who are in Iraq assisting in preparation for the voting.

Election organizers are still wrestling with questions of how to publicly list names of all candidates, and with difficult details of how the votes will be counted and reported, according to telephone interviews with specialists last week. They said they face the uncomfortable prospect that it is likely to be two weeks before results are known, and the complicating possibility that the declared winners will be challenged afterward under the election rules.

Voters on Jan. 30 will get at least two ballots, one for the national assembly and one for a governate legislature, equivalent to a state legislature, they said. The national ballot will have a line with the name, number and symbol, if there is one, for each of 111 slates of candidates. But the names of the individual candidates that make up each slate will not be on the ballot, the specialists said.

Because of the danger, the slates, even those put forward by the major parties, are not releasing the names of all their candidates.”

All of these factors favor Allawi. We wouldn’t be surprised to see Allawi stay in power after the election, in spite of the fact that he is certainly not the most popular political figure in Iraq. The best we can expect, in that scenario, is that Allawi will have to really deal with those voices that want Iraq to re-assert its sovereignty – which he has ignored, since June, given the support of the Americans. If Allawi continues to act as he has since June, Sistani will either have to move more aggressively against him, or watch the popularity of his umbrella group crumble, to the advantage, most likely, of Sadr.

Looking backwards -- at the history of the war so far -- let's sum it up like this:

One could argue for or against the American occupation in 2003. At that time, the anti-war position was an abstract matter of justice (the protest against the U.S. becoming a huge pirate ship), and a matter, at least for LI, of the hurt done to American interests by the crazy diversion of the war in the first place. However, the reality in Iraq was that the nation was no worse off than under the sanctions. And, as we have emphasized often, with the end of the horrendous Hussein regime (which, as we have also emphasized, would have been a good thing even if it was the bubonic plague which had carried off S.H. -- but, in the latter case, it wouldn't have made the bubonic plague a good thing. Such is the complexity of ethics, and such is the judgement we'd apply to the 'goodness' of the American action). But starting in around November, 2003, we’d say, the occupation has become an active evil in Iraq. The longer the American troops are there, the worse off the Iraqis will be.