President Bush was right to warn the American people that the high turnout for the January 30 Iraqi elections was only a first step toward democracy and independence. He was also right to describe the greater-than-expected turnout as an important indication of the Iraqi people’s desire for freedom and self-government. No one should underestimate the courage it took for 8 million Iraqis to go to the polls. As always, it was inspiring to see a people exercising the right to self-determination.
To what extent this election of representatives to a national constitutional assembly will move the deeply divided nation toward cohesion and stability, or usher in a liberal democratic republic, remains to be seen. As expected, Shiites and Kurds turned out while Sunnis, for the most part, shunned the process. The voting followed ethnic and religious allegiances, loyalties that will be put to the test in drawing up the nation’s constitution, and tested again next October and December when, respectively, that constitution will be put to a vote and the new government will assume power. In the meantime, the United States and Shiite and Kurdish leaders must find a way to bring the Sunnis back into the political process. Most observers doubt this can be done while the country remains occupied by 150,000 U.S. troops. Nor will it be possible for the United States to impose the kind of comprehensive security it established on election day. The insurgency is certain to continue.
A further complication involves U.S. allies such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, all authoritarian Sunni-dominated regimes who are not likely to be pleased with the emergence of a popular Shiite power on or near their borders. So delicate is this situation that President Bush made a point of telephoning these important allies immediately after the election. Bringing “freedom” to the Middle East while simultaneously placating our nondemocratic Arab allies will be a feat of unparalleled diplomatic and strategic dexterity.
The president likes to say that he is “changing the world.” It remains to be seen just how much, how soon, and whether the change proves to be for the better.