During his trip to Iraq, Vice President Joe Biden told reporters that "a successful parliamentary election -- slated for January -- would go a long way toward resolving lingering political tensions here." This has been a primary assumption shaping American strategy for a long time. The timing of U.S. troop withdrawals was explicitly designed around the perceived need to keep a larger troop presence through the elections to provide security. The implicit premise has always been that once those elections are held, the security problems will recede and a more rapid withdrawal could commence.
I've always questioned those assumptions -- both that a large U.S. troop presence would play an important or positive role in the Iraqi elections, and that the election would be a decisive moment which would transform the security calculus. Has anything happened over the last few months which might lead U.S. officials to rethink their assumptions?
Let's see. In Lebanon, elections in June led to a moment's euphoria in Washington, Riyadh and elsewhere as the March 14 coalition won a surprisingly large victory. Tortuous coalition negotiations then proceeded for months, until PM-designate Saad Hariri finally threw in the towel (he will likely be asked to try again). Lebanese politics looks pretty much like it looked before the election, only with more uncertainty over whether the deal granting the opposition a blocking third in the cabinet would hold.
In Iran, elections in June threw the country into turmoil over the blatant intervention by the hard-liners in the regime to block the surging reformist trend. The electoral fraud generated an upsurge of protest and then fierce repression, resulting in an Iranian regime which currently shows little sign of falling (despite the hopes of many) and whose politics have shifted far to the right. Negotiations on the nuclear issue have been put on endless hold, at least until the Obama administration wisely decided to go ahead with talks in early October. But those negotiations will clearly now be more difficult, and the drumbeat for sanctions and war has grown stronger.
And in Afghanistan, elections in August meant to create a legitimate government capable of working with the revamped American counter-insurgency mission were marred by such massive fraud that they seem likely to produce a less legitimate and more unstable government than before. Many of the strategists who placed their hopes on those elections now worry that they will be a turning point in the other direction, destroying rather than saving the American-led mission.
The similarity in American thinking about the role assigned to elections in the Iraqi and Afghan case bears particular attention. In each case, the elections are supposed to do very specific things for American strategy: legitimate the political order, bring excluded challengers into the political process, resolve enduring political conflicts, create a political foundation for the counter-insurgency campaign. In Afghanistan, the opposite appears to have happened. Should this worry those assigning the same hopes to Iraq?
This is not to say that the scheduled Iraqi elections don't matter (even if it were an American decision to hold them, which it most assuredly is not). The looming elections have very clearly profoundly shaped Iraqi politics. The jockeying over electoral coalitions, questions about Maliki's power or vulnerability, and reshaping of both intra-communal and inter-communal politics have dominated the Iraqi political arena for months. The outcomes will matter in important ways-- Shia politics could fragment or reunite, Maliki could emerge as the power broker many hope for or fear, Sunni groups might find a better entree into the ruling coalition, particular groups may rise or fall --- and in contrast to most Arab elections, the outcomes are not pre-ordained.
But things could go in bad directions as easily as in good directions -- or, even more likely, could shuffle the deck without producing any miraculous breakthroughs in national reconciliation. Certainly the 2005 elections produced their fair share of negative results -- worsening the spiral towards civil war, locking in communal representation, and paralyzing the government for months over the inability to agree on a Prime Minister. The January 2009 provincial elections were seen, by contrast, as a great success. But as the Times pointed out the other day, disillusionment with the results of the provincial elections -- which carried similar weight in U.S. thinking -- has grown in Anbar as new leaders fall into old habits.
As the national elections approach, then, analysts and policymakers should be attentive to what might go wrong and should not assume that the elections will "solve" anything. Politics won't end. Many analysts worry that the elections will exacerbate rather than eased the Arab-Kurdish tensions which so many put at the top of the list of current security worries (a concern given weight by the success of the al-Hadba list in provincial elections and by the trends in Iraqi political discourse thus far). Few provisions seem to have yet been made to ensure the effective participation of the still massive refugee and IDP populations. The potential for fraud seems high. The laws governing the election remain unclear. And if the SOFA referendum is packaged into the national elections, as seems increasingly likely, then all bets are off.
These questions, by the way, apply beyond Iraq. In a report I wrote with Brian Katulis a few months ago we urged that the Palestinian elections supposedly scheduled for January 2010 be held and the results honored. We relied on many of these same arguments -- that it would help resolve the persistent political conflicts, create a more legitimate government, and provide a base for negotiations to proceed. Maybe that's right, but maybe the results of these recent elections should force us to rethink the assumptions underlying that recommendation too -- and perhaps the decision to postpone elections until the late spring at Egypt's suggestion isn't so terrible.
At any rate, worth thinking about in Iraq and beyond.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.