Reported as triumph, Iraq elections were really Bush team’s nightmare
In the months before the January 30, 2005 elections in Iraq, gloom and dissension began creeping into the media’s usual cheerleading for the war. Casualties were mounting, Iraqi resentment was growing, and the Army was facing an alarming shortage of manpower. In a December column (12/27/04), Washington Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt—a staunch supporter of the invasion—lamented “the deteriorating conditions in Iraq” and warned that “the insurgents . . . are succeeding.”
But with the impressive outpouring of Iraqi enthusiasm over the January 30 elections, the “purple revolution,” captured on film and broadcast around the world, caused a sea change in the mood of the press. Not only did perceptions of the war effort improve, but the elections themselves were widely portrayed as a vindication of the administration’s “forward strategy of freedom” in Iraq and beyond.
Coming just 10 days after Bush’s inaugural address (1/20/05), in which he announced that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” the Iraq balloting, with its inspiring images of ordinary voters braving violence and intimidation, struck many in the press as a sign that Bush’s long-term strategy just might be working.
“Simplistic but effective”
“For the moment, Bush’s instincts . . . seem to be paying off,” wrote Time pundit Joe Klein (2/28/05). “Look at those Shiites vote! . . . The foreign-policy priesthood may be appalled by all the unexpected consequences, but there has been stunned silence in the non-neocon think tanks since the Iraqi elections.”
According to the New Republic’s Martin Peretz (4/11/05), the recent Palestinian elections—which were held two weeks before the Iraqi vote—were “a tribute to the inked purple fingers of Iraq, which is to say, a tribute to Bush and his simplistic but effective trust in the polling place.”
Foreign affairs columnist Jim Hoagland enthusiastically pointed to the wide participation of women in the Iraqi elections and concluded that “not even [Bush] fully appreciates the forces of change that he may have unleashed” (Washington Post, 2/24/05).
When asked what precipitated February’s anti-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut, Charles Krauthammer, Fox News Channel’s warlike all-star panelist, explained (Special Report With Brit Hume, 3/4/05): “Everybody saw on Al-Jazeera, among the Arabs, the free elections in Iraq under American auspices. It showed that we were sincere in the invasion in not being after oil or hegemony, but in bringing liberty.”
But beneath the layers of encomia to the Bush administration’s commitment to Iraqi democracy lies the buried history of how the first free elections in Iraq’s modern history actually came to be. From the very start, the administration was determined to install its handpicked favorites in positions of power in Baghdad and to exclude Iraqis with broader public support. For nearly a year, it watched helplessly as that strategy gradually came unglued. Only after its preferred game-plan decisively collapsed—in the face of an armed Sunni insurgency, the popular rejection of U.S.-supported Iraqi exiles, and crucially, the threat of a massive Shiite uprising—did the Bush administration reluctantly bow to pressure from Islamists and allow a free vote.
Many of those commentators now hailing Bush’s historic push for Iraqi democracy had spent earlier months commenting pointedly on the administration’s refusal to permit elections—some approvingly, others with frustration. Yet once the Bush team resolved to put a brave face on a policy U-turn they had in effect been compelled to undertake (and then sanctify it with ever-grander rhetoric about freedom and democracy), the pundits treated it not as a reversal, but as the triumphant culmination of the administration’s heartfelt democratic “vision” for the Middle East.
Some of the most informative reporting on Bush’s original plans to dictate the terms of the new Iraqi political order came, ironically, from neoconservative journalists with sources in the Defense Department. As planning for an invasion intensified in late 2002, Pentagon hawks circulated the idea of declaring a “provisional government” of handpicked Iraqi exiles before Saddam was toppled (New Republic, 2/17/03). Such a government was to be based on a grouping of opposition leaders led by Ahmed Chalabi—“among the truest” Iraqi friends of America, according to a Weekly Standard editorial (3/24/03)—whose Iraqi National Congress (INC) had been bankrolled by the U.S. for almost a decade.
About a month before the invasion, however, the administration shelved that approach after it “decided that the exiles do not command sufficient popularity within Iraq to lead a liberated nation” (New Republic, 2/17/03). The new plan, leaked to the Washington Post in February (2/21/03), called for “the Bush administration . . . to take complete, unilateral control of a post Saddam Hussein Iraq.” A U.S.-appointed Iraqi commission would be entrusted with writing a new constitution—but “officials emphasized that they would not expect to ‘democratize’ Iraq along the lines of the U.S. governing system. Instead, they speak of a ‘representative Iraqi government,’” the Post reported.
Yet the Pentagon was not yet ready to give up on Chalabi. In April, it airlifted him, along with several hundred fighters from the Free Iraqi Forces (FIF), a Pentagon-trained exile militia loyal to Chalabi, into the Iraqi town of Nasiriyah, where he sought to rally the local population behind him (Financial Times, 4/12/03). In Baghdad, an FIF “general” and Chalabi aide called a press conference to declare himself mayor (Financial Times, 4/17/03). And in Najaf, a mysterious group called the Iraqi Coalition of National Unity rode into town on U.S. Special Forces vehicles and briefly took over the local administration, commandeering private homes and cars and “looting and terrorizing their neighborhood with impunity, according to most residents” (Financial Times, 4/9/03).
All of this was explained later, by a U.S. official critical of the Pentagon, as the result of a Defense Department planning process that had envisioned “a 60-90 days, a flip-over and hand-off, a lateral or whatever to Chalabi and the INC. . . . And there would be a democratic Iraq that was amenable to our wishes and desires left in its wake” (Financial Times, 8/4/03). Other reporting largely confirmed this account of the Pentagon’s Iraq planning (e.g., Knight Ridder, “Pentagon Civilians’ Lack of Planning Contributed to Chaos in Iraq,” 7/13/03).
This early history of the occupation—a “hand-off” to a favored exile politician who would then lead a regime “amenable to our wishes and desires”—offered little support to the media portraits that attributed a grassroots democratic vision to Pentagon neoconservatives. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson (3/22/05), for example, spoke of the Iraq war as in large part “a product of Paul Wolfowitz’s grand idea to democratize the Middle East,” while the New York Times’ William Safire penned a column last year (5/24/04) contending that unlike the Arabists in the State Department, the Pentagon passionately desired “a democratic Iraq to cut off the incubation of terror in the Middle East.”
Yet the Bush administration’s lofty democratic ideals became even less evident as the next phase of the occupation began. In May 2003, Ambassador Paul Bremer, a Kissinger protégé, assumed his post as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority—or, as he was sometimes called, the U.S. viceroy in Iraq.
Taking firm control of Iraq’s governance, Bremer quickly laid out his agenda. Speaking to reporters in June aboard a U.S. military transport plan, he insisted—“with such fervor that his voice cut through the din of the cargo hold,” the Washington Post reported (12/28/03)—that opening Iraq’s state-run economy to foreign investors was among his most urgent priorities. “We have to move forward quickly with this effort,” he said. “Getting inefficient state enterprises into private hands is essential for Iraq’s economic recovery.”
But nothing went smoothly for Bremer. His economic plans, rammed through by U.S.-appointed Iraqi ministers, were bitterly opposed, both by Iraqi trade unions and by business leaders who faced the prospect of ruin at the hands of better financed multinational corporations. The head of the American Iraqi Chamber of Commerce called them “a recipe for disaster,” while a major Iraqi business leader, Walid Hafidh, labeled the policies a “world occupation” that would render Iraqis “immigrants in their own land”—sentiments “echoing the thoughts of many businesspeople in the Iraqi capital, some of whom appeared on Arab satellite television . . . to air their grievances,” according to the Los Angeles Times (9/23/03).
Still more ominous was the growing popularity of Islamist political parties among Iraq’s majority Shiite sect. Before the war, neoconservative pundits, such as the ubiquitous Iraq expert Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute, had argued that there was no contradiction between excluding these groups from power and fostering an Iraqi democracy, since the Islamists would prove unpopular anyway, once Iraq was liberated.
“It is by no means clear that a return of political activism among the Shia . . . would lead to fundamentalism,” Gerecht wrote (Weekly Standard, 3/24/03). “Nor is it clear that the radical Shia groups that defied Saddam’s rule—principally the clandestine guerrilla Dawa organization inside Iraq and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) headquartered in Tehran—will have significant followings in Iraq once Saddam is gone.”
The New Republic’s Lawrence Kaplan (5/12/03) was assured by “members of the Bush team” that followers of SCIRI were actually just “Potemkin Shia”—“bought, paid for, and exported by Iran.”
This was the gamble on which the war was based. And once the Bush administration saw itself in danger of losing that bet, it resorted to repression. Across Iraq, SCIRI’s offices were raided by U.S. troops and its leaders arrested (Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, 6/24/03). When a SCIRI candidate was expected to win local elections in Najaf, the vote was shut down by U.S. troops on Bremer’s orders (New York Times, 6/19/03).
This soon became a pattern. “U.S. military commanders have ordered a halt to local elections and self-rule in provincial cities and towns across Iraq,” the Washington Post reported the following week (6/28/03), “choosing instead to install their own handpicked mayors and administrators.” The problem with free elections, Bremer explained, was that “it’s often the best organized who win, and the best organized right now are the former Baathists and to some extent the Islamists.”
Over the next six months, the Bush administration found itself locked in a tenacious rearguard action to prevent democratic elections and ensure that political power would be wielded only by its trusted Iraqi lieutenants. In June, the leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah al-Sistani, issued a fatwa against Bremer’s plan to have U.S.-appointed Iraqis write a constitution and insisted only freely elected Iraqis be involved.
According to a Washington Post reconstruction of what followed (11/26/03), the Bush administration first assumed it could ignore the fatwa by seeing to it that “secular former exiles backed by the U.S. government would push Bremer’s plan.” When that didn’t work, “they talked about recruiting other ayatollahs . . . to issue statements warning about the dangers of immediate elections.” But none materialized.
To mollify Sistani, Bremer’s advisors came up with a new idea, which they marketed as a “partial election” (Extra!, 3-4/04). When Sistani declined to endorse the idea, Bremer refused to give up. He set up a committee of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, hoping it would recommend his own “partial election” plan.
When the committee voted 24-0 to endorse Sistani’s call for free elections, Bremer instructed his allies on the Governing Council to disregard the report and ask for a new one. “We told them to come up with other ideas,” one councilmember said (Washington Post, 11/26/03). “We told them to consider partial elections.”
Bremer made one last-ditch effort to enlist Shiite politicians to change Sistani’s mind. In response, the cleric issued a written statement to the Associated Press (10/19/03), insisting there was “no substitute” for direct elections. That statement caused nothing less than a crisis for the Bush administration. Bremer flew back to Washington for emergency consultations. A U.S. official, speaking anonymously to the Washington Post (11/26/03), articulated the fundamental truth about U.S. policy toward Iraqi self-government that few in the media have been willing to acknowledge: “Once it became clear we couldn’t get around the election, we knew we had to do something else.”
That “something else” was initially a cosmetic change, envisioning a speeded-up transfer of sovereignty to Iraq but a permanent constitution still to be written by Iraqis selected through “caucuses.” Although U.S. officials adamantly insisted that their opposition to elections was motivated solely by logistical concerns, it emerged that they had quietly vetoed a detailed Iraqi technical plan to hold an early vote (Extra!, 3-4/04). In more candid moments, some, like Noah Feldman, Bremer’s advisor on constitutional issues, admitted the real motive: “Simply put, if you move too fast, the wrong people could get elected,” Feldman told the New York Times (11/29/03).
But Sistani wasn’t fooled. He declared the new U.S. plan illegitimate in “its totality and its details.” In the largest demonstrations in Iraq’s modern history to that point, 100,000 Shiites marched in Baghdad and 30,000 in Basra to support the ayatollah’s demand (AP, 1/19/04). Aides to Sistani hinted that if nonviolent protest failed to bring genuine elections, armed resistance could follow (Washington Post, 1/17/04). With U.S. casualties already mounting from the armed Sunni insurgency further north, the Bush administration finally realized it had no other option. Over the next few months, it gradually conceded that elections would be held and the date was set for January 2005.
That wasn’t, of course, the end of the administration’s efforts to install its favorites in positions of power. It settled on a new proxy—Iyad Allawi, a former Baathist with close ties to the old Iraqi Army—and strong-armed the United Nations into appointing him interim prime minister, instead of Hussein Shahristani, a respected Shiite physicist close to Sistani (Newsweek, 2/5/05). During Allawi’s tenure, Shahristani later complained, “nothing could be done without U.S. approval.” The U.S. then spent the next year not so subtly backing Allawi’s election campaign; U.S. officials fed journalists a steady stream of confident off-the-record predictions of Allawi’s impending electoral victory (New Republic Online, 3/24/05).
But the results of Iraq’s first free elections demonstrated more clearly than anything else why the administration had been so opposed to them in the first place. The winning slate was a coalition led by the two Shiite parties, SCIRI and Dawa, that had been most feared by the Bush administration. “Within the Bush administration, a victory by Iraq’s religious parties is viewed as the worst-case scenario,” reported the Washington Post’s veteran Middle East correspondent, Robin Wright, a few months before the vote (10/22/04).
The Shiites’ likely victory apparently led some administration officials to doubt whether the whole Iraq adventure was even worth it: “After all the blood and treasure we’ve spent and despite the occupation’s democracy efforts, we’re in a position now that the moderates would not win if an election were held today,” Wright quoted a U.S. official.
Yet in the aftermath of the elections, almost no pundits were willing to acknowledge this reality. Instead, many wholeheartedly swallowed the administration’s lofty rhetoric about Iraqi democracy while in many cases ignoring their own earlier reporting on Bush’s steadfast rejection of free elections.
Because of Iraq’s vote, the Wall Street Journal editorial page rejoiced in February (2/25/05), “President Bush’s vision of spreading democracy—of getting to the ‘tipping point’ where tyrannies start to crumble—seems not only to be working but also winning some unexpected converts.” Just a year earlier, it ran a puzzled editorial (“Why Not Elections,” 2/5/04) wondering why the administration was “in the anomalous position . . . of opposing elections” in Iraq.
But before that, the Journal (11/14/03) had offered its own curious ideas about democracy, blasting what it claimed was a “State Department attempt to re-create the Philadelphia of 1787 in Baghdad, and to provide a perfectly level playing field between exiles and indigenous Iraqis.” Instead, “we’d be happy if the U.S. simply selected somebody and got behind him,” the paper wrote.
Washington Post foreign affairs columnist Jackson Diehl (2/28/05) recently mocked those who spoke of “Bush’s fanciful illusion that democracy would take root in Iraq and spread through the region.” He pointed to recent popular protests in the Middle East against unelected autocrats, noting that “within weeks of Iraq’s elections, Mubarak and Assad are tacking with panicked haste between bold acts of repression . . . and big promises of reform.”
Yet his own editorial page had just a year earlier (12/2/03) sided with those in the Bush administration who were staunchly resisting Ayatollah Sistani’s call for an elected government in Baghdad—the rationale being that Iraqis, if allowed to choose freely, “could empower Shiite politicians effectively controlled by the clerics.”
Martin Peretz, editor of the New Republic, penned a sarcastic editorial (3/31/05) chastising administration critics for failing to credit Bush’s sweeping democratic vision (the piece’s subhead was “Giving George W. Bush His Due on Democracy”), yet his own magazine had been reporting doggedly for more than a year on the administration’s determination to dictate Iraq’s leaders and forestall elections. One TRB column on Sistani’s call for elections (2/9/04) was headlined “Panic Room” (in a reference to the administration terror at the prospect of a free vote) and noted Sistani’s “justifiable fear” that Iraq’s Shia majority “will be disenfranchised yet again, this time at the hands of the United States.”
Looking at the Bush administration’s strategy since the invasion, designed to keep power in U.S. hands while marginalizing Islamist parties, the elections can only be considered a massive defeat for the administration. Yet the press has been all too willing to accept its disingenuous declarations of victory. As news reports roll in of autocrats from Cairo to Damascus to Teheran quaking in their boots at the prospect of democratization in the Middle East, one more capital should probably be added to that list—but Washington will likely remain absent.