Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 2004/ 27 Kislev 5765
Iraqi elections a test of American faith
Despite the advance of America's holiday season, we seem to be a glass-half-empty nation.
Even as Afghanistan was swearing in its first popularly elected president, Hamid Karzai, American news was dominated by grim reports about worsening conditions in Iraq.
On the very Tuesday that Karzai was to be sworn in, the New York Times, for example, opted not to give it any play. Instead the front page featured a story about two reports from the Central Intelligence Agency warning of deteriorating conditions in Iraq.
No one's suggesting we ignore the reports - or that they be spun for optimism - but a fair reading of the Times story suggests a few questions: Who didn't know? So what? And why now?
The reports, part of a classified cable sent late last month by the CIA's station chief in Baghdad following a yearlong tour, were enough to send Cassandra into raptures: Such bad news and so much attention. Cassandra's curse was that she was always right but was never believed. Here we always believe bad news whether or not it is right.
Conditions in Iraq are far more pessimistic than what we've been hearing from the Bush administration, we're told. In terms of politics, economics and security, things are bleak. Whereupon mature Americans nod their heads: war is like that.
For those who've been gazing at star beams and hoping dreams will come true, we should probably mention that things are going to get much worse between now and the Jan. 30 elections. Such is the nature of the beast.
As for the question that inevitably follows, yes, Iraq has to hold elections anyway. And on time. Delay plays into the hands of foreign powers gathering around the corpse that was once Iraq.
Things will get worse, of course, because Iraqi insurgents - and self-interested parties elsewhere - do not want things to go well. They will continue to do their best to derail the elections, to weaken the will of the Iraqi people, and to undermine U.S. support.
For this reason President George W. Bush has been steadfast in his insistence that the Jan. 30 deadline not be compromised. Much is at stake, not the least of which is American credibility in Iraq and the Arab world. Elections are a sine qua non of an exit strategy.
Equally important, holding elections on time telegraphs to the terrorist world that it cannot thwart the goal of freedom. That may sound pie-in-the-sky, even trite if you're as tired as I am of hearing "they hate freedom."
It is nonetheless true that terrorist supporters within Iraq, as well as certain other Arab nations, are enemies of freedom to the extent that free people are powerful foes of fanatics, tyrants and - yes - monarchists, too.
Perhaps most important, if seldom mentioned, the Iraqi people want the elections. This is born out by polls conducted in Iraq by the International Republican Institute (IRI), a nonprofit organization founded in 1983 to advance democracy and the rule of law in other countries.
Among IRI findings is that the Iraqi people are deeply concerned about security, as one can imagine, and are fairly evenly split on the question of whether they're headed in the right direction. It is, after all, difficult to remember that your original purpose was to create democracy when you're up to your waders in insurgents and explosions.
Nevertheless, the pessimism Americans are supposed to feel as they absorb daily reports of killings, car bombs and sectarian strife isn't shared by most Iraqis. When asked whether they view civil war and sectarian strife as likely, 68.8 percent say "unlikely," 14.8 percent say "always possible but not likely," and only 7.8 percent say "likely."
One of the camouflaged conclusions in the CIA reports otherwise so bloated with portent is that the best way to rid Iraq of terrorism is to hold an election.
In the relevant passages from the Times story, officials acknowledged that resilient Iraqis have made political progress, but predicted that "the security situation was more likely to get worse . unless there were marked improvements soon on the part of the Iraqi government, in terms of its ability to assert authority and to build the economy."
Can there be a better argument for elections held sooner rather than later?
If one were sipping from a glass half-full, here's how the Times report might have read instead: Once elections are held and an Iraqi government is able to assert authority and build the economy, the security situation is likely to improve, with less violence and fewer sectarian clashes.
That doesn't sound so bad, unless you prefer failure.
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