'No Corners' In Iraq

Iraqi women cast their votes for the Iraqi election at a polling station in the town of Az Zubayr, in southern Iraq, Thursday Dec. 15, 2005. Elections for a 275-member National Assembly took place across Iraq on Thursday. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
In the run-up to the voting in Iraq this week, an interviewer on National Public Radio asked George Packer, author of "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq," if this round of elections meant we were turning the corner there, to which Packer replied "there are no corners in Iraq …" He went on to say what Americans need to realize is that the war in Iraq is just one long haul with many problems ahead.

One can agree or not with descriptions of America's involvement in Iraq but the bottom line no one disagrees with: It doesn't really matter how many benchmarks we pass because there is always another challenge (read: pitfall) ahead, which could be the fatal blow to the administration's goal of seeing Iraq become a vibrant democratic state in the Middle East.

If Iraq is a distance race and not a sprint, can we say this week's election was a success? Just as the two elections earlier this year should be seen as successes, of course this week's balloting should be seen in the same way. But even before millions of Iraqis voted this week, it was pointed out the hard work isn't in holding the election itself. The more difficult piece is whether those elected can form a government which most Iraqis from across the ethnic and religious spectrums will rally around and support.

If such a government can be formed, how will it and the newly elected national assembly address the issues side-stepped when the temporary constitution was adopted? How strong a role will religious (Sharia) law play in governing Iraq? What limitations, if any, will be placed on the role of women in Iraqi society? The new government will also face practical questions related to wielding power. All private militias are supposed to be dismantled but will a new government be strong enough to make that happen? Will the newly trained national army and police be fully integrated or will certain tribes or ethnic groups predominate? Most people who follow developments in Iraq say the next six months or so should give us the answers to these and many other questions related to Iraq's political future.

This month we have heard President George W. Bush and senior members of his cabinet explain, justify and restate the reasons we went to war against Saddam Hussein. Mr. Bush made four speeches himself. Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld each made one. The public re-explanation, re-justification blitz was aimed at regaining the political high ground back here at home and while the rhetoric may boost Mr. Bush's standing in the polls it will not help the Iraqi people get electricity on a full time basis, or increase oil production now reduced because of the insurgent's attacks nor will it cause ordinary Iraqis to worry less about being injured or killed by some ethnic or religious leader's private militia or an improvised explosive device (IED) intended for American soldiers.

Most of the problems in Iraq are tied to security and unless and until coalition (read: American) and/or Iraqi security forces are able to control the insurgency, the future of Iraq as a democracy will remain in doubt. The White House and Pentagon know that training Iraqis to replace U.S. troops requires more time, not less, but the Bush administration is under increasing domestic pressure — from Democrats and some Republicans too — to reduce our troops presence sooner, not later.

Even as Mr. Bush and his most senior aides wrestle with this dilemma and try to take the offensive by defending their policy and pointing the way forward, they are dogged by missteps — alleged or real is not always clear — made in the related war on terrorism. Secretary Rice spent a week in Europe answering questions tied to allegations first made in the Washington Post that the U.S. has secret prisons in Europe where the really, really bad al-Qaeda guys are held and/or tortured. Nobody wants to talk about intelligence-related matters but the questions and answers (or non-answers) were around for weeks before Rice herself tried (with some success) to put the matter to rest. Just as that issue began to fade, the New York Times reported Mr. Bush authorized the National Security Agency to spy on Americans and others inside the U.S. without proper legal authorization. On the morning after the election this week, when Secretary Rice wanted to spend her time praising the steps forward in Iraq, she was forced to deal with the latest information acting as a drag on progress in Iraq. Iraq is that kind of a war.

While it is a good thing millions of Iraqis voted this week — and an especially good sign is that Sunnis in large numbers were among those who went to the polls, it does not follow that the U.S. has "turned the corner" in Iraq and that we're on a smooth glide path from this point on.
By Charles M. Wolfson