Saturday, January 29, 2005

Matthew Yglesias asks a very pertinent question that concisely summarizes the skeptical position on the US intervention in Iraq:
Even if the election goes well as a procedural matter tomorrow, what good will it do?
Wrapped up in that question are a number of fears about the outcome of the intervention: post-election Iraq might descend into chaotic, bloody civil war, or be taken over by Ba'athist or Al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents, or fall under Iranian domination, or....remain a violent, draining de facto US protectorate from years to come.

Well, I could respond by reassuring the skeptics that Iraq following the election will no doubt become a model of peaceful, free, pro-Western democracy, from which American troops will be able to depart within months, happy that their work there has been completed. Unfortunately, I can't muster the optimism to declare such an outcome the likely one.

But we can separate the question, "whither Iraq after the elections?", into two separate ones: "whither Iraq in the next few years?", and "how will the elections, in particular, affect the next few years in Iraq?" And it seems clear to me that whatever the answer to the first question, the answer to the second is likely to be, "quite positively".

First of all, the election offers a process by which unviable Iraqi political forces (quite possibly including Iyad Alawi's current interim government) can be weeded out, and a viable political party given a chance to govern. That fact alone makes the likelihood of complete political breakdown and outright civil war less likely (though far from impossible).

Second, the parties projected to do well--the unified Shia and Kurdish slates--are hardly the most disastrous choices one could imagine. Either or both could, of course, turn tyrannical or bloody or unusually corrupt or incompetent or any combination of the above. But the odds of this are probably considerably less than for most other plausible combinations of ruling parties that might find themselves at the top of the heap under an alternative government selection process.

And finally, the mere smooth, uncorrupted exercise of the democratic process, I believe, can have a salutary effect on a nation's long-term political health. It's worth remembering that Germany and Japan--two of the most surprising converts to democracy in history--actually had functioning democracies in their not-too-distant pasts, before embracing fascist dictatorship. Other countries as well--most notably France, as well as a number of Latin American states--went through one or more cycles of established and collapsed democratic systems before finally stabilizing under a democratic government. Still others had what might be called "sham democracies"--parliaments and elections that were not in fact democratic--that eventually evolved into actual democratic governments. A transition from pure dictatorship to functioning democracy, on the other hand, is much, much rarer.

Of course, Yglesias is probably more concerned about Iraq's short-to-medium-term future than its long-term political development--particularly insofar as the near-term presence of US troops makes the former a pressing issue for Americans. Fortunately, one can be a pessimist about the immediate implementation of full-fledged democracy while still being optimistic about Iraq's immediate future.

Consider the situation in post-election Afghanistan, for example: the Karzai government isn't exactly the Blair government, the warlords haven't disappeared, the Taliban still threatens, and American troops remain. Still, Karzai turns out to be politcally shrewd enough to hold the central government together and negotiate successfully with regional leaders. And with the help of a modest American military presence, local Afghan forces have been able to stave off any major Taliban comeback. A similar outcome in Iraq is not entirely implausible--certainly no more implausible than it would have been in pre-election Afghanistan itself. And at this point, achieving such results in Iraq would also have to be considered a tremendous American success.

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