Monday, October 17, 2005

So How’d I Do?: Iraq Referendum Predictions Follow-up

Prior to the referendum on the Iraqi Constitution, I made some predictions:

  • I don’t know if it will pass. My guess is that it will - one way or another.
  • Administration critics will worry about the possibility of the referendum failing, but be quick to point out that its success would not necessarily represent a milestone toward democracy. Even the best of constitutions don’t mean anything just on paper.
  • When the Sunday morning news shows this referendum is timed to occur just before roll around, the Right will indulge themselves in another round of triumphalism, just as they did after the Jan 30th interim election, as if they bloodshed and turmoil of the past eight and a half months had not gone on unabated. Furthermore, they will launch an assault on non-triumphalists accusing us of wanting Iraqi Democracy to fail in order to score domestic political points.

So. How'd I do?

Fortunately for me (though not for this post) I spent the weekend with my partner further north, viewing the fall foliage and taking in a great autumn day and so missed the Sunday morning news shows. Nevertheless, while the triumphalism seems to have been more subdued than I had expected, as expected Bush, Rice et al have declared the vote itself and the probable approval of the referendum as “an indication that the Iraqi people are strongly in favor of settling disputes in a peaceful way.”

For Rice the very fact that Sunnis turned up in large numbers (apparently) to reject the constitution is a sign that they are “now invested in this process.” “The important matter”, she said, “is that the Iraqis have in large numbers gone out to vote in this process.” Once again, it matters more that they voted than what they voted for. Pay no attention to the political faultlines the vote highlighted nor to the fact that the participation itself was secured by a last minute deal that allowed the Constitution to be altered, possibly fundamentally, after the vote, making it unlikely that the draft probably approved will be the final document.

Coming from the Bush administration, this is no surprise. A bit more surprising, though was the NYT’s editorial, “The Sovereign People of Iraq” on the matter, which outlines the many and varied problems with the referendum, yet nevertheless declared “What we know already, and can't fail to be impressed by, is that large numbers of Iraqis of all persuasions turned out, in defiance of terrorist threats, to decide their constitutional future. They have exercised a basic democratic right that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.” (Emphasis added.) The disconnect between this front loaded conclusion and the facts discussed below it presents the appearance of a very different, more critical editorial being stuffed into a more administration friendly package.

The overall picture emerging, even in the “liberal” press, is one of a flawed but historically important step towards Iraqi sovereignty. But wait, you ask, wasn’t this supposed to be an important advance towards Democracy? In the President’s brief statement congratulating the Iraqi people on a “successful election”, Bush refers to Democracy no less than six times. And on Fox News Sunday, Condoleezza Rice refered to it five times. Nevertheless, it’s done in a way that succeeds in lowering still the goal post. No longer are we offered grand dreams of Western style freedoms spreading like a virus throughout the Middle East. Bush defines what Democracy now means for us. “The purpose of a democracy is to make sure everybody is -- participates in the process.” “Democracies are peaceful countries.” We are now to use the relative absence of violence (the country was under virtual lockdown again) and the very fact of a vote to be what a Democracy just is. An end to the violence, that is the promise of this vote, according to Bush.

Few, outside of liberal circles, have made much of Bush’s invocation of al Qaeda three times in his 324 word statement. “The vote today in Iraq stands in stark contrast to the attitudes and philosophy and strategy of al Qaeda and its terrorist friends and killers.” It also stands in stark contrast with the political philosophy of Plato. This is no mere contrast for the sake of contrast. We are meant to assume that the vote was another victory in the war against terror, specifically al Qaeda.

However, unnoticed by mainstream news sources are deeper problems still with the vote last weekend that may make even the more modest goals now being offered by Bush nearly impossible to achieve in the manner we are pursuing them. The indispensable Juan Cole reports:

Al-Hayat reports that 643,000 votes were cast in Ninevah Province (capital: Mosul). At the time it filed, 419,000 had been preliminarily counted, and the vote was running 75 percent in favor. Ninevah Province was the most likely place that Sunni Arabs opposing the constitution might be able to get a 2/3s "no" vote.

Several of my knowledgeable readers are convinced that the Ninevah voting results as reported so far look like fraud. One suspected that the Iraqi government so feared a defeat there that they over-did the ballot stuffing and ended up with an implausible result.

Undoubtedly, this will look like liberal bellyaching to Bush supporters and lend itself to those charges that liberals want democracy to fail in Iraq to score political points. Once again, making this about domestic politics misses the point. It doesn’t matter what Ann Coulter or Al Franken believe. It matters what the Iraqis believe. Turning to a non-Western news source, we find a report that “Abdullah al-Jabura, the deputy governor of the northern Iraqi province of Salaheddin, has stated the referendum on the Iraqi draft constitution had failed, a claim denied by the Iraqi Election Commission.” An implausible result that smacks of fraud, even if not true, could make the Sunnis “investment” in the political process short-lived. I am not trying to adjudicate these charges of fraud. My point is simply that we ignore these concerns at our own peril. Turning a blind eye to this will leave us, once again, surprised at and at a loss to understand continued violence.

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