Ballots and boycotts in Iraq

Posted in Iraq | 14-Jan-05 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

A worker finishes preparing a billboard urging Iraqi citizens to vote in upcoming national elections in Baghdad.
WASHINGTON In trying to think through whether we should press ahead with elections in Iraq, I have found it useful to dig out my basic rules for Middle East reporting, which I have developed and adapted over 25 years of writing from that region.

Rule 1: Never lead your story out of Lebanon, Gaza or Iraq with a cease-fire; it will always be over by the time the next morning's paper is out.

Rule 2: Never take a concession, except out of the mouth of the person who is supposed to be doing the conceding. If I had a dime for every time someone agreed to recognize Israel on behalf of Yasser Arafat, I would be a wealthy man today.

Rule 3: The Israelis will always win, and the Palestinians will always make sure that they never enjoy it. Everything else is just commentary.

Rule 4: In the Middle East, if you can't explain something with a conspiracy theory, then don't try to explain it at all - people there won't believe it.

Rule 5: In the Middle East, the extremists go all the way, and the moderates tend to just go away - unless the coast is completely clear.

Rule 6: The most oft-used phrase of Mideast moderates is: "We were just about to stand up to the bad guys when you stupid Americans did that stupid thing. Had you stupid Americans not done that stupid thing, we would have stood up, but now it's too late. It's all your fault for being so stupid."

Rule 7: In Middle East politics there is rarely a happy medium. When one side is weak, it will tell you, "How can I compromise?" And the minute it becomes strong, it will tell you, "Why should I compromise?"

Rule 8: What people tell you in private in the Middle East is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in Arabic, in Hebrew or in any other local language. Anything said in English doesn't count.

It is on the basis of these rules that I totally disagree with those who argue that the Jan. 30 Iraqi elections should be postponed. Their main argument is that an Iraqi election that ensconces the Shiite majority in power, without any participation of the Sunni minority, will sow the seeds of civil war.

That is probably true - but we are already in a civil war in Iraq.

That civil war was started by the Sunni Baathists, and their Islamist fascist allies from around the region, the minute the United States toppled Saddam Hussein. And they started that war not because they felt the Iraqi elections were going to be rigged, but because they knew they weren't going to be rigged.

They started the war not to get their fair share of Iraqi power, but in hopes of retaining their unfair share. Under Saddam, Iraq's Sunni minority, with only 20 percent of the population, ruled everyone. These fascist insurgents have never given politics a chance to work in Iraq because they don't want it to work. That's why they have never issued a list of demands. They don't want people to see what they are really after, which is continued minority rule, Saddamism without Saddam. If that was my politics, I'd be wearing a ski mask over my head, too.

The notion that delaying the elections for a few months would somehow give time for the "Sunni moderates" to persuade the extremists to come around is dead wrong - literally. Any delay would simply embolden the gunmen to kill more Iraqi police officers and to intimidate more Sunnis. It could only convince them that with just a little more violence, they could scuttle the whole project of rebuilding Iraq.

There is only one thing that will enable the Sunni moderates in Iraq to win the debate, and that is when the insurgents are forced to confront the fact that their tactics have not only failed to prevent the elections, but have also dug the Sunnis of Iraq into an even deeper hole.

By boycotting the elections, not only will they lose their unfair share of the old Iraq, they will also have failed to claim even their fair share of the new Iraq. The moderate argument among the Sunnis can prevail only when the tactics of their extremists have proved utterly bankrupt.

For all these reasons, the least-bad option right now for the United States is to forge ahead with the elections - unless the Iraqi Shiites ask for a postponement - and focus all of America's energies not on appeasing the insurgents, but on moderating the Shiites and Kurds, who are sure to dominate the voting.

Despite my seventh rule, we have a much greater chance of producing a decent outcome in Iraq by appealing to the self-interest of the Kurds and the Shiites to be magnanimous in victory, than we do of getting the insurgents to be magnanimous in defeat.