KQED Forum: Iraqi Elections

Adapted from a session of KQED’s Forum hosted by Michael Krasny. Four guests from across the political spectrum debate the meaning of the results of the elections and the future of Iraq and U.S. military involvement there.

Host: Michael Krasny

Guests:

Marshall Windmiller, professor emeritus of International Relations, San Francisco State University
Thomas Donnelly, defense analyst, American Enterprise Institute, and editor of Armed Forces Journal
Erik Leaver
, research fellow for the Institute for Policy Studies and policy outreach director for the Foreign Policy in Focus project
Major Dana Dillon, senior policy analyst, Heritage Foundation

With a large and peaceful turnout at the polls in Iraq this past October, what will the passage of the constitution mean for the future of Iraq as well as for the likelihood of a viable democracy emerging and for possible diminishing of the insurgency as well as prospects of a pull out of U.S. troops?

Was the October referendum on the constitution and high Sunni participation good for democracy?

Marshall Windmiller

Whenever you have people going through the procedures of democracy you have an educational process and they haven’t had anything previously like that so that’s a good sign. The problem is that the constitution leaves unsolved the basic problems of Iraq. The problems in the constitution have been kicked down the road to be solved later. In addition, the constitution is full of a number of contradictions that make it difficult to deal with it as a blueprint for the future. So while having a referendum was a good idea, some people are calling the constitution a time bomb that is going to explode around the first of the year because there are so many important and emotional questions still undecided.

Thomas Donnelly

It’s a big step. It’s not the last step, there is a long way to go, particularly for the Sunni populations to put the guns down and take up the ballot box and particularly in areas where Sunnis had a majority but not a two-thirds majority. But with the participation being strong at the polls, Sunnis can look forward to having strong representation in the legislature.

Erik Leaver

I think that we have to keep in mind of what they were voting for. They went to the ballot boxes largely because they wanted to vote no to the constitution. Twelve out of 18 provinces appeared to have extremely high ballot box counts and in the Ninawa province, which was highly contested, there were continuing U.S. military operations there dispersing the population so vote totals were lower than expected.

If the constitution had done its job of determining the future of Iraqi people, the question of the U.S. troop presence would have been brought directly to the Iraqi people. Questions should have been asked about Iraq’s role in control of production and distribution of their oil resources. There would have been a discussion about what’s the commitment to rebuilding the social infrastructure.

What are the dangers in the Constitution?

Marshall Windmiller

Some of the contradictions that are in the constitution include the kind of law that will prevail. Sharia law–Islamic law–will have a predominant role, but there are contradictions with Sharia and democratic principles. Another problem is the relationship between the central government and the states. Under this constitution, states have the power to negate federal law. They also have the privilege of representation in foreign embassies, in other words they could have their own foreign policies.

Thomas Donnelly

The fact that the constitution may be a living document rather than something set in stone for all time ought to be something that Americans recognize. Even things like state nullification of federal law are a series of issues we ought to be familar with from our own history. In that regard the process is far more important than the document itself. It is not a question so much of what the final answer in Iraq is but a commitment of the various parties to achieve it through a peaceful political process.

Erik Leaver

The constitution is a living document but it is set up to have a one-time set of changes or amendments to the constitution to be done in a four month period after the new government is formed. If we continue to see dominance by Shiites and Kurds in the legislature, it’s likely that the Sunnis will continue to be shut out a meaningful role in the process and the fighting will continue.

Is the timetable for the December elections realistic?

Maj. Dana Dillon

I think it can be kept on track but what I’m more afraid of is they are pushing the dates in Iraq more by the American election cycle. The bigger fear here in Washington is what’s going to happen next year when Congress is up for a vote and three years from now when there is the presidential election. What I hope is that if there are problems in Iraq that they don’t just maintain the schedule just in order to meet the American election cycle but they make whatever adjustments they have to make in order to meet the conditions in Iraq.

Is there an exit strategy for U.S. troops behind all of this?

Marshall Windmiller

I’ve seen that speculation, but when the president speaks on the issue he says we’re going to stay there until there is a stable nation which manifests freedom for its population and he is very stubborn about this. Although there is considerable talk in Washington about how we get out, I don’t see the Democrats making a heavy push on this, and certainly the Republicans are going along with the White House. So I don’t see an exit strategy in the works. Now, conceivably somebody can say well at sometime in January or February well we’ve had a constitution there, we’ve had another election, we’ve got a parliament, we’ve gotten rid of Saddam Hussein for these people, we’ve done everything we can for them, let’s wish them godspeed and leave. I think that would be a possible exit strategy but I don’t see any indication that’s in the cards right now.

Thomas Donnelly

I’d agree with the professor’s analysis almost to a word. I hope that that remains our policy. The process in Iraq is very fragile. We are going to need to stay there and we need to have patience. The one thing that can really throw the prospects for a stable and increasingly democratic Iraq off the tracks would be an American withdrawal. It’s not for nothing that Zahawari made that his number one strategic desire.

Maj. Dana Dillon

Bush is saying stick to your guns and I think that is absolutely the correct way. I think we have to say we’ll stay there no matter how long it takes. If we get to a point to where there is a stable government I don’t see any reason why we can’t leave. You can’t continue to subsidize their security. Also, there is a downside any time you have occupation troops no matter how peaceful it is. I was stationed as a young lieutenant in Germany and even then the Germans resented our presence there during the Cold War and the Soviet Union was still across the border. No one likes to have foreign troops in their country and eventually they become a target of resentment. To some extent as they are now, not only in the Sunni community but in the rest of Iraq. So there is a balance you have to have there where we are subsidizing the security with American troops.

When you have the presence of foreign troops in a country, even if you have an alliance and a reason to have them there, they eventually become a target of resentment. You can see where it’s happened in the Philippines where we were asked to leave. There are many people who believe we are closing in on that position in South Korea when the South Koreans may ask us to leave even though there still is very obviously a very heavily armed North Korea with in artillery range of Seoul. I would not be surprised at all if shortly after there is an Iraqi government put into place that the Iraqis will ask us to leave or start drawing down once they feel that they can take care of the situation themselves.

What are the criteria for an exit strategy and when should the U.S. leave?

Maj. Dana Dillon

I think measuring the stability of the government is definitely the metric to measure. But the ability of the Iraqi security forces to fend for themselves and the stability of the economy are also things to look at. And all those three things seem to be coming together right now. We are looking at an elected government early next year and the Iraqi security forces, as everyone has attested, have proven themselves to be much more competent than they were even a year ago.

Erik Leaver

I think the U.S. has developed a deadly version of Midas’ golden touch. It seems that pretty much with any part of Iraqi society we’ve tried to integrate with has resulted in more harm than good. Although the president has touted improvements in the Iraqi security forces, Pentagon officials recently testified in Congress that we have fewer Iraqi brigades that can fight independently this year than we had at this point last year. The reconstruction remains stalled and the political process it seems to be on a short trip to nowhere. Just as Dana Dillon mentioned, once you have troops on the ground occupying the country, the population begins to resent you. The longer that we stay there, every minute, every day, makes us more likely to be the targets of violence.

What role should the U.S play in the future in Iraq and the region?

Thomas Donnelly

There will not be an exit, and as a matter of my own policy preference I think that exiting is a really bad idea. If you look at what’s happened in the Middle East over the past 25-30 years, the instability there has tended to attract American military forces. If you were to plot on a curve the American presence in the region over the past 25 years, it’s just gone steadily up, up, up and I expect that it will stay at a fairly high level even if there is a draw down or the garrison in Iraq is reduced. There’s just enough of a mess in that part of the world that it demands that we do something about it and there really is not anybody else who can do something about it.

Erik Leaver

Presenting grand plans for imperial ambitions to remake the world in our image have not worked very well for the British or for other countries with imperial ambitions. Tom Donnelly will probably have some things to say about this. It was under the guise of the Project for the New American Century that we set forth on this path. But we have to be really careful about understanding that yes, we are a superpower but that also brings certain responsibilities for ourselves and for our actions. This notion of policing the world and remaking things in our image hasn’t worked and has probably made the situation in Iraq far worse than it ever was before.

Tom Donnelly

Obviously I disagree; I think this is an incorrect reading of American history and American foreign policy for 200 years or so. I don’t know what is going to happen in Iraq, it is certainly conceivable that we will fail. On the other hand, I do think where we are now is far preferable than the situation we had previously vis-a-vis Iraq. I don’t think simply honoring the sacrifices of soldiers that have come before is the primary reason to stay there. I think there are other much better reasons, such as our own concerns about our own security. Whether we stay or leave doesn’t stand or fall depending on the price that we have paid thus far. I think everybody is really not foreseeing or wrestling with what the real consequences of abandoning not only Iraq but what the result of a withdrawal would be on our overall policy and level of violence in the Middle East.

Marshall Windmiller

One of the indicators of this situation and of the points that Mr. Donnelly raises is the role of world policeman. There is another name for that–imperialism and American global empire. That sort of thing isn’t going to work in the 21st century. The big indicator of our capacity to do that sort of thing is the highway between Baghdad and the airport. We are the greatest superpower in the world but we can’t secure that little five mile stretch of highway. And that pertains to many other parts of the world where we are making noises like we want to establish a military presence or even a greater military presence than what’s there. For example, Secretary Rice’s tour of Central Asia made clear that what we are interested in is our military bases there. And if you look at a map of American military bases marked on it you’ll see we are all over the area. Now that’s going to produce an extraordinary amount of global resistance, not only among the people in the occupied areas but among the people in Western Europe who had their experiences with imperialism. They know it doesn’t work very well and they are turning against our policies.

Are the Iraqi people really ready for democracy?

Thomas Donnelly

No, no they are not. But are they capable of learning the ways of democracy? Are they interested? It may almost be a content-free noun for most Iraqis, but that is what they think they want. This is a politically immature and long repressed society, and to expect them to be immediately and broadly conversant with the many responsibilities of a citizen in a democracy is entirely unrealistic. That is not to say that we give up on the process and walk away from it. We have seen what kind of oppression is necessary in Saddam Hussein’s rule to keep Iraq together by ruling through the fist. I think it is about time and quite a reasonable alternative to propose a consensual government that protects the rights of the minorities rather than repress the majority in order to favor a particular minority. The past model in Iraq is not only unsuccessful for Iraqis but it is pretty darn dangerous to us.

Erik Leaver

Are the Iraqi people suffering from repression? Yes. Are they politically immature? I would argue no, they are reacting in rational senses given the construct of the political environment that they are operating underneath. I mean let’s remember that the rules that they have been operating underneath so far have been largely dictated by the United States. The political elections that we saw in January were extremely top-down. Unlike in the United States where we have people represented geographically, these party lists do not have that geographical representation. So, you really have a process being driven by elites and being overseen by the U.S. I would argue, to this date, we really haven’t seen the root of democracy or rule by the people going on in Iraq.

The Coalition Provisional Authority, which was largely run by Paul Bremer, came in the aftermath of the invasion to rule and govern the country. One of the architects in the CPA is a professor at NYU, Noah Feldman, and he wrote a book that essentially outlines how Islam can be compatible with democracy. Noah Feldman was one of those officials along with the whole team of folks that were involved with drafting the transnational administrative law, the TAL, which set forth the rules and regulations for the election to take place.

But the process was not inclusive with respect to the Iraqis. There was a token presence of Iraqis that would be brought into these meetings. They were all hand-picked by the U.S. Early on in the process, the U.S. had gone into cities and towns to start town councils, but it became very apparent that the running of these was very uneven across the board. Some cities really did have elected officials, others had elections and then the U.S. would reject the results of those elections. The legacy of democracy that we have presented so far in two-and-a-half years of occupation has been a very poor model. A very poor example of what we should aspire to here in the United States.

Marshall Windmiller, professor emeritus of International Relations, San Francisco State University
Thomas Donnelly, defense analyst, American Enterprise Institute, and editor of Armed Forces Journal
Erik Leaver, research fellow for the Institute for Policy Studies and policy outreach director for the Foreign Policy in Focus project
Major Dana Dillon, senior policy analyst, Heritage Foundation