Much Hope, Many Doubts

By David Little

Interpreting the Iraqi elections and their future implications is fraught with uncertainty. Perhaps all the ethno-religious groups can get together—the Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs and the Sunni Kurds—with the numerous smaller groups living mainly in the north. Perhaps they can all put loyalty to a unified Iraq above sectarian interest, mitigate the insurgency by developing an effective security force, and create a state that is relatively peaceful and secure—internally as well as regionally. It may even be true that the successful containment of the insurgents on election day, January 30, 2005, helped the country turn an important corner. For obvious reasons, such an outcome is the fervent desire of all reasonable people.

At the same time, there is—even now as Iraq’s national assembly convenes—cause to be skeptical of the exuberance with which the Bush administration, some journalists, and many in the public greeted the elections. For one thing, the reaction displayed a depressing lack of acquaintance with the body of literature detailing the precariousness of attempting to move from authoritarianism to democracy. For another, the reaction revealed an unseemly degree of inattention to the outcome of the Iraqi elections that was evident early on, and has at last been certified. That profile is not reassuring with respect to the chances any time soon of establishing political stability and “the rule of freedom” that President Bush devised lately as the single reason for invading Iraq.

Hope Doubts

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

A recent study concludes that the results of democratic transitions over the last 200 years raise questions of any policy that equates promoting peace with spreading democracy. To be sure, that is a good idea in the long run, because mature democracies do not tend to foment violence. But such systems are not easy to come by. What is required are things like civic institutions and the rule of law, as well as an established state bureaucracy and a professionalized media. Where they have a foothold and can be expanded to include previously ignored or repressed segments of society—as in South Africa, for example—the chances of success are fairly good.

But where those conditions are lacking, and are supplemented by other things like weak central authority, high-energy politics, and unstable coalitions among sharply divided, competitive groups, elections can in fact increase tension and insecurity. In the light of the elections, these are the circumstances Iraq seems to face. Saddam Hussein destroyed any semblance of independent national institutions, and by favoring the Sunnis and brutally suppressing the Shi’ites and Kurds, he intensified ethno-religious consciousness as the basis of political identity in Iraq.

This creates serious problems. For one thing, any coalition between the Shi’ites and the Kurds, which will be required in order to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary for choosing a president and prime minister and for adopting a constitution, will be “unstable” by any definition. Shi’ites supporting a religious agenda in some form or other were big winners on January 30. The fact that they are divided over the shape of religious influence increases the potential for internal conflict and frustration among them.

Kurds, on the other hand, have no sympathy for Shi’ite aspirations, and, in fact, harbor deep antipathy toward Arabs in general. They will try to use their substantial electoral strength to consolidate their already-extensive autonomy, which includes retaining their own armed forces. At the top of their list will be efforts to absorb the northern city of Kirkuk, key to 40 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves. That objective, along with any attempt to move toward independence, will, in turn, cause enormous strain between Kurds and Arabs, both Shi’ites and Sunnis, not to mention the smaller ethnic groups that inhabit the north.

As for the Sunnis, their role, of course, only darkens the picture further. The 2 percent turnout in Anbar province, home of the Sunni Triangle, shows that heartland Sunnis, either because of alienation or intimidation, simply didn’t participate in the election, and are therefore effectively unrepresented in the parliament. That fact will only increase the instability of post-election coalition-building, because the legitimacy of any Sunni participants will be in serious doubt. Indeed, as the results stand, there is no reason to expect that Sunnis will have much incentive to disavow the insurgency. Nor should it be forgotten that Saddam himself often used force to try to subdue the obstreperous residents of Anbar province.

There are other problems, domestic and regional. Given the political fragmentation, finding generally acceptable people for the positions of president and prime minister who can govern effectively will be a daunting task, casting doubt on the prospects for strong central leadership. Some kind of loose federation of the three ethno-religious groups, which seems likely, could raise difficulties in the region, particularly if the Kurds turn increasingly toward independence. Both the Turks and the Iranians are concerned over the possibility of an independent Kurdistan in their midst. Also, the Iranians may come to take intense interest in the advancement of certain Shi’ite objectives in a new Iraq, particularly if those interests are significantly thwarted.

Though things may work out tolerably in Iraq after all, it is important to look carefully at several scenarios, not just the rosy ones. Would that had been the practice of the United States all along.

David Little is Dunphy Professor of the Practice in Religion, Ethnicity, and International Conflict at HDS and a Faculty Associate at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.