Saturday, April 3, 2010

To my esteemed colleague, Jeff Schneider:

You wrote that the news of a vote in Sadr City to determine which candidate the Sadrist MPs would support was a positive development.  I respectfully disagree.  Or, if you prefer the immortal words of Dan Aykroyd, Jeff, you ignorant slut.

First of all, these "elections" are entirely unmonitored.  As the New York Times reported,

There were no lists of eligible voters, no one was required to show identification and apparently there was no way to prevent people from voting more than once...
Zaman Jabar, 30, who helped organize the process, said traditional election standards like registering voters and requiring identification were not necessary.
“We know all the voters in our sector here,” he said. “All of them are our people.”
Forgive me for being dubious that Mr. Jabar knows every resident in the Sadr City area of Baghdad.  The situation cries out for fraud.  I don't think al-Maliki or Allawi are able to overrun the polling places with their supporters to sway the results, but I do believe that the lack of formal accounting mechanisms will allow Muqtada al-Sadr to declare his support for which candidate he decides.

In short, the entire "election" is a sham, and the end result will be the same - whichever party does the best job bribing Sadr will get his support.  And the bribing has already begun.  Juan Cole relays the news that al-Maliki already began releasing Sadrist political prisoners.

Furthermore, Sunni-Shia divisions are driving this process, not democracy. 
With the exception of Allawi, all of the major candidates descended on Tehran after the vote to start the political bargaining.  Iran is controlling the process, and it is no surprise that Allawi, a relatively secular candidate who renounced support from Iran and courted the vote of exiled Iraqi Sunnis, was not present.  The delicate truce that has held across Iraq since the Sunni Awakening may collapse if the Sunnis feel that their candidate, Allawi, is cheated of his right form a coalition.  Unfortunately, sectarian violence already shows signs of returning.

Jeff, your point that the mere presence of the Sadrists in the electoral process is a positive development is well taken.  However, Sadr's assessment that he can manipulate the electoral process to serve his own ends without violence is not a healthy outcome.  It's better than violence, but it still undermines the notion of democracy.  Elections are not democracy.  Elections are a part of democracy, but are not the most important piece.

I'm glad the Mahdi Army isn't currently resorting to force.  But the notion that Sadr has suddenly become a true believer in democracy is far-fetched.  If you believe that, I have a nice bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you...


Jeff Schneider said...

Dave --

wow! I really have to say, I've never had someone so vehemently agree with me. A few points:

1. This is not an election -- nor is it intended to be, it is an unofficial plebescite -- intended to inform, not be legally binding.

That being said, it is poorly run and poorly managed. But that is how the democratic system begins, with failure and then course correction. Will this happen in Sadr City? I don't know -- I'm sure that you are pessimistic, but again I fall back to the following position: I would rather Mahdi army hands holding ballots instead of guns and IEDs.

2. I think you may be projecting a few false conceptions on my piece. While my glasses may be too rosy on the issue, allow me to walk you through what my argument is:

Sadr City used to be a completely ungovernable insurgent stronghold that violently opposed both the central government of Iraq, the democratic process, and coalition troops.

Today, a peaceful voting process is being undertaken. This suggests some level of "buy in" by both Sadrists and former insurgents to the democratic process. It may mean that Sadrists have decided that they can gain much more by joining the system instead of fighting it. That is the definition of a successful COIN operation. Even if the Sadrists seek to merely appear to be buying in is a positive step -- because the now recognize that their legitimacy comes from, at least minimally, from appearing to be playing by the rules. If this is the case, it is a baby step in the right direction.

I really am puzzeled how you can agree with these points (as you do above) and yet feel that I have been "bamboozled" by my ignorant sluttyness into buying a bridge from Sadr.

I also don't know how you can see even limited buy in to a democratic process (however flawed) as a step in the WRONG direction for Sadr City -- when you consider the alternative. All due respect to Juan Cole, but he appears to have decided that his political bias trumps all fact. As for sectarian violence returning -- it is nowhere near the levels we saw years ago.

Ultimately, Democracy is something that is a practice -- with many mistakes and missteps on the path towards a more perfect governance. We here in the United States don't exactly have a great track record -- something illustrated by the Lincoln Presidency. I guess I am just confused by your response -- and hope you can answer this question:

How is any non-violent buy (even if lfawed and limited) in to the idea of a democratic Iraq a peice of bad news?

The Sadrists may be playing fast and loose -- but even if they are, they have opened a door which may have unintended consequences. Their people now feel that they have political agency -- that their vote may matter (something that was anathema to them before this) -- and that, my friend, is the beginning of the democratic process.

I invite you to dispute this, as I am sure you will, and await your comments.

Anonymous said...

This analysis is just too simplistic: not a single mention of the Shia/Sunni divide in this. Violence is only good until you achieve what you want. Mugtada is the Kingmaker. To say that Sadrists fought against "democracy" is a bit shameful considering that it was a democracy imposed (in quite an imperial fashion complete with returning exiles) from the outside. But, it's true to say that we can all be happy less killing is taking place.

And what, I would ask Jeff, is Cole's "political bias." Trumping fact? I'd say the facts created the bias, if there is one.

Thank you David, I think your analysis has been quite good overall.

Anonymous said...

"What a difference an effective COIN operation makes."

The author who wrote those words cannot be relied upon for clear analysis. First, the COIN ops in Iraq have only a tangential affect on the ultimate strategy of Muqtada. They were somewhat and impermanently effective against Al Qaeda, inasmuch as they bought off its most likely allies. To believe otherwise is to indulge in dangerous fantasies (if it worked there, why not here).

Anonymous said...

Very difficult to make an assessment of the situation when no one can explain the goals, what we as a nation want to achieve in Iraq. If they keep shifting and rising and falling, all talk of evaluation is pointless. It may lead to a refinement of the goals, but it's highly unlikely, evaluations being intrinsically connected to our own domestic politics.

Anonymous said...

David, got a funny feeling that Jeff is not going to forgive you for this public undressing.

Matt said...

Guest (13:24:57),

I think the goal has been fairly clear for a long time: Establish a stable and democratic Iraq that is an ally to the US.

What has not been clear is if this is possible, feasible, worth the cost, or supported by the American public. The goal remains the same, the evaluation of the feasibility and acceptability of the cost is what constantly varies.

Anonymous said...

If that's the real goal, it's the vision of madmen.

Dave Reidy said...


Point well taken. I took your essay as a starting point and expanded from there, and by no means did I mean to imply that you opposed all of the points I made.

I think, at the base, we both see Sadr using this referendum instead of violence to advance his agenda as a good think. The difference is that you see it as progress, and I see it, somewhat cynically, as the same old gambit in a different form.

You make some other good points, for sure. Sadr City has been a focus of US COIN efforts, and I think that has had a moderating impact on the attitude of the public towards the US forces.

Ultimately, I hope you're right and that this is just the first step in a process of democratic engagement. Unfortunately, I don't expect that to happen.

Anonymous said...

Somehow I doubt the "lesson" being drawn from COIN OPS in Iraq (I read David's comment regarding them as a gesture of good will toward Jeff and his point). It contributed to the reduced violence of late (recent explosions might prove that point best) but from the Sadrist POV, why engage in violence when you've already won: the US is leaving, you are the most important player in the game, Iran, a powerful country on your border supports you. Violence from the Mahdi Army now would be illogical and self-destructive. It would give impetus to Americans who want to keep soldiers stay in Iraq. We might like to imagine in the style of post-modern orientialists that it is through our tactical planning and superior power and "moral standing" that things are finally looking good.

Anonymous said...

About Sadr City. Certainly the hierarchy--which probably goes right down to the apartment building leader--of the Sadrist movement knows everyone in Sadr City and knows how people will most likely vote. Anyone who has ever lived in communities like that understands how difficult it is to hide oneself. People know you, and the pressure is ENORMOUS. And this "election", which it isn't, rather a caucus, is to gauge which of the victorious should be victorious. Muqtada al Sadr is playing chess, and we're playing checkers.

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