The Iraqi elections have gone off successfully, in the sense that the turnout was good and the violence relatively contained. That’s very good news. Now comes the hard business of establishing a real government. I’m sympathetic with John’s view that it might not be such a bad thing if the U.S. took a “Declare Victory and Go Home” attitude, even though that’s one of the scenarios people were most worried by before the invasion. Getting out would leave the government in a position to at least try to run its own country, instead of inevitably playing second-fiddle to the U.S. occupying forces. I’m not sure any more that this is likely to happen, though.
The best possible outcome of the weekend’s election is a successful completion of the present government’s term followed by another real election. It’s often said that the key moment in the growth of a democracy is not its first election but its second, because—as Adam Przeworski says somewhere—a democracy is a system where governments lose elections. The question planners need to be asking is what are the chances that Iraq will be able to do this again in four or five years without the presence of U.S. troops and with the expectation that whoever wins will get to take power. This partly depends on whether some functioning government can really be established within the country, and partly on whether the U.S. wants a working democracy in Iraq (with the risks that implies) or just a friendly puppet state.
To take a weak comparison, the Irish State’s independent existence began with the the election of 1922, when William Cosgrave’s government took power. But the leading opposition party—Eamon De Valera’s Sinn Fein—refused to recognize the results of the election and did not take their seats in the Dáil. Much against the odds, Cosgrave’s government successfully instituted a system of local government, established a civil police force, began a program of electrification and dealt with an army mutiny, all the while facing the problem that the main opposition party did not recognize the legitimacy of the state. (Contempt for election results is one of the defining features of Irish Republicanism, incidentally.) By 1926, things were clearly stabilizing and De Valera began to cop on to the fact that the state wasn’t going to fail. So he walked away from Sinn Fein, founded Fianna Fáil and took his seats in parliament (under legal pressure from the electoral amendment act). In 1932 Fianna Fáil won a majority in the election and Cosgrave handed over power to De Valera. That was a remarkable moment, seeing as the front benches of both parties were made up of families who’d been trying to kill each other a decade earlier. None of this would have happened if the British Army had continued to be a real presence in the day-to-day life of the country.
Unlike thousands of desk-jockey warbloggers, I don’t have any expertise in Iraqi politics. But it seems to me that if Iraq is going to succeed as a democracy then it has to consolidate itself in something like this way. A continued heavy military presence by the U.S. won’t help this goal, because it won’t do anything to legitimate the government as an independent entity. Withdrawal risks civil war, but this is essentially what’s going on already, just with the lid barely kept on. The current prospects are not good at all, especially with respect to the continuous attacks on the new police force and the efforts to systematically eliminate the nascent political class. The fact that Iraq has a lot of oil and was formerly a brutal dictatorship doesn’t help much either. Ireland, fortunately, had neither of these features. Instead, it was an agrarian backwater no-one cared about, and had been administered as a colony by Britain, which did things like build railways and run a civil service. The new government inherited the state apparatus and didn’t have to worry about its geopolitical position. Cases of successful transitions in resource-rich nations are few: Botswana springs to mind, I suppose. Though there the consensus is that “three honest men” (the first three heads of state) were what got them through without a coup or a descent into anarchy. This is a depressingly un-sociological conclusion. It’d be much better if it all depended on something reliable, like the proportion of the population over 30, or the percentage of homes with running water or something. Honest men are thin on the ground.