The Iraqi people go to the polls Sunday to vote in their country's first free multiparty election in more than 50 years. A free and fair election would mark an important step on the road to stability and democracy in a nation that has seen more than its share of conflict. As Election Day approaches, in fact, the situation on the ground has grown only more insecure, and the odds are stacked against a positive outcome. True to its record, the Bush administration seems more concerned with how Iraq's election is perceived than with its execution or legitimacy. As the White House spins away and prepares to once again claim that "freedom is on the march," it's worth remembering the facts.
Ongoing violence and confusion threaten to undermine the election's legitimacy. Most Iraqis do not even know where to go to vote, as the locations of the polling stations have been kept secret to prevent attacks. Under threat of assassination, many candidates have avoided public events and concealed their names. A poll by the International Republican Institute released on January 20 found that nearly 40 percent of Iraqis falsely believe they will be electing a president in this election. The security situation is so bad that the Iraqi election will be the first of dozens of transitional elections that will not have international observers in country to assess whether the process is "free and fair."
The Bush administration is aggressively lowering expectations. Faced with an increasingly perilous situation on the ground, administration officials in the days leading up to the election have changed their tune about the country's stability. Administration officials once said that the Iraqi people would throw rose petals at the feet of American soldiers; they are now anonymously urging people "not to focus on numbers, which in themselves don't have any meaning, but to look on the outcome." U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte has said that the participation of the Sunnis – who comprise nearly 20 percent of Iraq's population – should not be the "arbiter…of the legitimacy of this election." Even Donald Rumsfeld has offered a bleak assessment: "Looking for a peaceful Iraq after the elections would be a mistake."
Let the finger-pointing begin. The Bush administration has a big mess on its hands in Iraq. But if the election does not go well, it will not be surprising if the White House – instead of taking responsibility for its mistakes – tries to lay blame elsewhere. Potential scapegoats abound; beware of finger-pointing at the United Nations or our European allies for allegedly not doing their parts. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote, "to have any chance of turning things around, the administration must do what it has steadfastly refused to do – admit mistakes."
A successful election will do little to stabilize the country. Any victory by the Shia majority is bound to incite Sunni insurgents and Saddam loyalists to violence. Lack of participation by the Sunnis – who may be too intimidated and fearful to vote – will sow the seeds of unending strife. Sunni Iraqis could find themselves underrepresented in the National Assembly, and that could prove devastating to the constitutional process. And the Iraqi Electoral Commission could well be delayed in determining a final result; protests, violence and sheer uncertainty could drive the country into chaos. Spin the wheel of Iraqi (mis)fortune to learn how the administration is gambling with Iraq's future.
This election marks only the first step on a long road to democracy. The election will create a 275-member National Assembly that will draft a new constitution; additional elections are then slated for no later than December 2005. But experts predict that this first election will do little to resolve centuries-old conflicts or stabilize the country. Columbia Law Professor Samuel Issacharoff contends that far more is needed for a Balkanized state to mature into a democracy: "While elections may be necessary to a democracy, though, they are by no means sufficient."
The White House has no back-up plan. It should come as no surprise that this administration, which has never been fond of planning, seems to have no idea for what comes after the potentially explosive election. "'I don't think they're thinking of a Plan B…You go for elections, hope for the best and if it doesn't materialize, you go with whatever emerges — probably a heavily Shiite government,' said Henri J. Barkey, a former State Department Iraq specialist… 'Then you hope that this new government will be smart enough and enlightened enough to make an outreach to the Sunnis.'" As they say at the Pentagon, hope is not a plan.
The Iraqi election has cost Americans more than 1,400 lives and $220 billion. The Bush administration has already spent $144 billion prosecuting the war in Iraq and is about to ask taxpayers for another $80 billion . In the meantime, American soldiers – 35,000 of whom will deploy on the streets of Baghdad alone to protect voters – are killed or wounded every day. At this price, one might expect better results than a highly uncertain election amidst widespread instability – and no end in sight for our troops or taxpayers.
Robert O. Boorstin is the senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress. Nicole Mlade is a senior analyst also with the Center.