Another mission accomplished for Bush? It’s too early to say

PRESIDENT George W. Bush was quick to declare another mission accomplished and proclaim Sunday’s election in Iraq a victory even though it may be somewhat premature. Indeed, considering the threats of violence, the voting went ahead, and voter turnout — except in Sunni areas — was reported high.

By Claude Salhani

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Published: Wed 2 Feb 2005, 9:05 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:11 PM

But as James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and his pollster brother John point out, "The turnout was sectarian, with the Shia voting for control of the government, the Kurds voting as an expression of their autonomy, the Sunni Arab failure to vote as a function not only of threats, but a clear expression of their growing sense of disenfranchisement."

Nevertheless, the outcome of this vote will mark an important milestone in Iraq’s history given that it will decide if the Sunnis accept to cohabitate with the Shias, who now hold the majority, or if instead the results would throw the country into a protracted civil war. One outcome of this election is that it created the first Arab Shia state — something Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini tried to do for years but never succeeded.

Iraq’s elections will also directly affect the United States where results will be closely monitored by the Bush administration and the American people; each holding a vested interest in its outcome.

The current American administration has a lot riding on the Iraqi elections, the aftermath of which will decide if President Bush’s interventionist policy — and imposing democracy — was a success or a failure.

As it was, President Bush wasted no time in addressing the nation on Sunday, saying: "The people of Iraq have spoken to the world, and the world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East."

However, if Iraq slips into civil war because the Sunnis reject the elections on the grounds that they do not feel represented in the new parliament, Sunday’s experiment in ‘democracy-lite’ will be seen as a flagrant failure of the administration’s policy and Bush will suffer a major setback. The result would force the Bush administration to reexamine and re-assess its Middle East policies.

On the other hand, and despite the irregularities and violence that accompanied the voting, if the results appear somewhat positive, allowing Iraqis with their first elected government to move forward, to draw up a constitution, effectively engage in a policy of reform and nation-building, then, that would be seen as a feather in Bush’s bonnet. And a rather large feather at that.

All things considered, Bush has a lot invested in the outcome of the Iraqi elections; almost as much as he had riding on his own election last November. A successful outcome will vindicate Bush and the neo-conservatives, proving the point that democracy can be imported and force-fed. But more importantly, a successful outcome of Sunday’s Iraqi elections might encourage the neo-cons in the Bush administration to pursue their vision of imposing more democracy in the Middle East.

It was not long after the first Bush inauguration that Syria and Iran appeared on Washington’s radar screen as potential targets for future regime change. Teheran, one should not forget, was the second cog in the "axis of evil" apart from Iraq and North Korea.

Teheran popped up on Washington’s radar due to its efforts to become the second nuclear power in the Middle East. A nuclear-armed Middle Eastern country (other than Israel) frightens many in the Bush administration to the point where preventive action is seriously being considered now in Washington. The idea of a nuclear-powered Islamic republic is keeping the midnight oil burning in more than one government office on the banks of the Potomac, as well as in Israel where similar fears persist.

After all, the Bush administration "justified" its invasion of Iraq on the basis that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. Additionally, Teheran is on Washington’s watch list for its alleged support of what are considered terrorist groups by the U.S.

For many Americans — particularly those with family in the military — this Iraqi election carries particular importance because it brings the issue close to home. If successful, the elections will allow the new Iraqi government to start assuming greater responsibility for its security. This in turn means that American forces could start to disengage from Iraq sooner rather than later. Many see a successful election as the way out of the Iraqi quagmire. Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill, such as Massachusetts Democrat Senator Edward Kennedy, are calling for timetable and a phased withdrawal of American troops. Unrefined as the Iraq electoral process may have been, the question now is if a natural progression towards political maturity will emerge allowing Iraqis to regain full control of their destiny, in turn permitting the Americans to leave?

In a meeting with the Press a few days after his inauguration President Bush reiterated his beliefs that exporting freedom and democracy was the correct approach.

"I firmly planted the flag of liberty, for all to see that the United States of America hears their concerns and believes in their aspirations," said Bush. The American president sees the Iraqi experience as a success despite the continued violence which is unlikely to stop as a result of the elections.

"Eventually the Iraqis will be able to take off their training wheels," said the president. The question is when will those training wheels be ready to come off? And when they do, will Iraqis be able to pedal away safely, or will they wobble and fall?

Claude Salhani is foreign editor and a political commentator with United Press International in Washington.

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