The American Politics of Iraqi Elections

Yesterday Marc Lynch over at Abu Aardvark advised us to “keep an eye on those kurds” (sic), who walked out on the Iraqi parliament’s vote on the provincial elections law to protest the provisions dealing with the status of Kirkuk, and the use of a secret ballot to pass them. Today comes news that the Iraqi presidential council, headed by President Jalal Talabani (himself a Kurd) but joined by Shiite Vice-President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, vetoed the law, sending it back to parliament for reworking (via today’s WPR Media Roundup). That effectively rules out any elections before next year, dealing a setback to the Bush administration, which was counting on elections to deliver tangible proof of political progress in Iraq.

Instead what we have is tangible proof of political process in Iraq, which to my mind is more revealing and probably more valuable. To begin with, I’m not convinced by the administration’s logic on two counts. It’s very possible that the Sadrist current, despite recent setbacks, might have scored a strong enough electoral showing to cast doubt on the consensus narrative of Nouri Maliki’s recent consolidation of power. Second, the assumption that progress in Iraq represents a zero-sum advantage for John McCain (and consequently a disadvantage for Barack Obama) no longer seems to be operative given the developments of the past week regarding withdrawal timetables. (The elections were originally scheduled for October, although they had already been pushed back to December.)

The fact that the veto, as opposed to a car bombing or major combat operation, is the day’s major news out of Iraq is testament to the progress made over the past year, and to the evolving nature of the Iraq War, which at this point has essentially become a massive holding action. But the Kurdish walkout also demonstrates the amount of delayed maintenance that has accumulated in Iraq’s political reconciliation, and thereby underscores the degree to which almost all of the progress of the past year has taken place at the most basic and fundamental level of security. And that’s a bitter pill to swallow given the duration and costs of our engagement to date.

I find it unfortunate that Iraq policy is now being filtered almost exclusively through the lens of American presidential politics, so I’ll limit my remarks to the following. The facts on the ground in Iraq are increasingly dictating a forward-looking policy, ie. what do we do now to advance America’s strategic interests while minimizing the risk of sacrificing the progress we’ve made in Iraq? The two candidates offer contrasting approaches in response to that question, both accompanied by compelling supporting arguments and inherent risks.

The political miscalculation, as I see it, is that the McCain campaign, by basing its Iraq pitch on his support of the Surge, is essentially engaging in last year’s debate. Obama, to be sure, emphasizes his initial opposition to the war, but centers his Iraq pitch on his vision for the way forward. And while his withdrawal timetable was formulated last year, it has managed to maintain its political relevance to the debates of today and tomorrow. Those are the debates the Iraqis are focusing on now, and they’re the debates the candidates should be focusing on, too.

More World Politics Review