But why stop there, let's go back a couple of paragraphs to Hertzberg's smart dismissal of that old press report about Vietnam's elections in 1967 that everyone cited last week, frequently without comment (and as if no comment were necessary.) Well, here's a comment (with no comment necessary):
Critics of the Bush Administration can take comfort in the fact that the apparent success of the Iraqi election can be celebrated without having to celebrate the supposed wisdom of the Administration. Like the Homeland Security Department and the 9/11 Commission, the Iraqi election was something Bush & Co. resisted and were finally maneuvered into accepting. It wasn’t their idea; it was an Iraqi idea—specifically, the idea of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Shiism’s most prominent cleric. In a way, it was a by-product of the same American ignorance and bungling that produced the unchallenged post-Saddam looting and the myriad mistakes of the Coalition Provisional Authority. But this time—for the first time—the bungling seems to have yielded something positive.
Iraq is still a very, very long way from democracy. And even if it gets there, the costs of the journey—the more than ten thousand (so far) American wounded and dead, the tens of thousands of Iraqi men, women, and children killed, the hundreds of billions of dollars diverted from other purposes, the lies, the distraction from and gratuitous extension of the “war on terror,” the moral and political catastrophe of systematic torture, the draining of good will toward and sympathy for America—will not necessarily justify themselves. But, for the moment at least, one can marvel at the power of the democratic idea. It survived American slavery; it survived Stalinist coöptation (the “German Democratic Republic,” and so on); it survived Cold War horrors like America’s support of Spanish Falangism and Central American death squads. Perhaps it can even survive the fervent embrace of George W. Bush.
There are plenty of Vietnam echoes in America’s Iraq adventure, especially in the corrosive effects on domestic comity, the use of false or distorted intelligence to create a sense of immediate threat, and the arrogance, combined with ignorance of local realities, of many senior strategists. But the differences are large, beginning with the nature of the enemy. The Vietnamese Communists possessed a legitimacy derived from thirty years of anticolonial struggle—against France, then Japan, then France again, and, finally, willy-nilly, the United States. Iraq’s insurgency has support in the Sunni minority, but it is no national liberation movement. And for all the cruelty of the Iraq war’s “collateral damage,” it has produced no equivalents of Vietnam’s carpet bombings, free-fire zones, or strategic hamlets. (Nor, it must be said, did Vietnam produce an equivalent of Abu Ghraib; but then Vietnam was a war in which both sides held prisoners.)
Iraq is not Vietnam, and Iraq’s election was not like Vietnam’s in 1967. The latter was a winner-take-all presidential and vice-presidential “contest,” staged on American orders. The predetermined winners were the military strongmen already in power, Generals Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky. The exercise was as meaningless as one of those plebiscites by which the cowed citizens of banana republics ratify whichever colonel or corporal has lately mounted a coup. The Iraq election was the real thing. Voters had a choice of a hundred and eleven party lists, ranging from Communists to theocrats to secularists. (The murderous “security situation” made personal campaigning next to impossible, but this was less important than one might think; there were some seventy-seven hundred candidates on the national lists, far too many for voters to keep track of, so the election was about political, religious, and ethnic identity, not about personalities.) Moreover, the voting was the first stage of a process that, if it goes as planned, will provide fairly strong incentives for consensus and disincentives for civil war. Once the votes are counted—a laborious process—the result will be an extremely diverse two-hundred-and-seventy-five-member assembly, which will choose a transitional government and write a constitution. Since the draft constitution can be vetoed by two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq’s eighteen provinces—a provision which, though originally designed to protect the Kurds, could prove equally efficacious in protecting the Sunnis—the assembly will have every reason to design a mechanism that accommodates the interests of minorities.