Saturday, March 27, 2010

In reporting on Iraq, US newspapers continue to suffer from "group think."

In a recent communication, a British official, with intimate knowledge of Iraq, referred to those who refuse to see any progress towards democratization in the country as suffering from "group think." By this he meant that there are a large group of Westerners, in the media, academia and elsewhere, who refuse to admit that Iraq is moving forward politically. Indeed, there are those in the West who continue to view Iraq as merely a patchwork of ethnic and confessional groups who will never come together in a nation-state with a national purpose. Yet the recent elections point to the reassertion of an Iraqi nationalism that, while suppressed during the 1990s and between 2003 and 2007, has now reemerged as the dominant form of political culture.
The problem of "group think" is clearly evident in a number of articles published by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other US newspapers following the recent Iraqi elections. Under the byline, "Allawi's Victory in Iraq Sets up Period of Uncertainty," and "Court Decision before Election May Complicate Results," published on March 26 and 27, 2010 respectively, the New York Times, for example, focused almost entirely what might go wrong with Iraq now that elected officials, particularly Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, seek to form a new government.
In a more nuanced commentary, NY Times reporter Thom Shanker pointed out that there was an excellent turnout at 5000 polling places throughout the country and that Iraqi voters were not intimidated by efforts to prevent them from casting their votes. Thus it is important to note that there are notable exceptions to the reporting on the elections. But the more fundamental questions still remains. What is the dominant Western narrative of the elections and why does it focus almost exclusively on negative developments, whether actual or potential?
First, the elections are alleged to have been sectarian in nature. This is true to a certain extent. Nevertheless, no reporter seems to be able to explain how a Shiite candidate, Ayad Allawi, was able to generate large numbers of votes in majority populated Sunni Arab areas of Iraq. Even more to the point, Sunni Arabs only constitute 15-20% of the Iraqi population. Statistically, it would have been impossible for Allawi to have won a plurality of votes without considerable votes from Iraq's Shiite community. Indeed, the Iraqiya List's strong showing in Kirkuk suggests that it also drew upon Kurds, the majority population in the city, and Turkmens who comprise a significant percentage of its population as well.
Second, American reporters suggest a deadlock, now that neither Maliki nor Allawi achieved a decisive victory in the elections. While it is true that there will be a period of uncertainty as politicians try to position themselves to form the next government, this period will entail an enormous amount of negotiating and "horse trading," to use an American colloquialism. Few American reporters have commented on the manner in which the democratic process in Iraq has worked to undermine sectarian identities by forcing politicians from different ethnic and confessional groups, and from different sections of the country, to interact with one another and to develop negotiating skills. While familiarity often breeds contempt, it can also promote positive relationships, which has been the result in many instances in Iraq.
In that regard, the Iraqi parliament, which is usually seen as a dysfunctional institution, has worked to promote interactions among Iraq's constituent ethnic and confessional groups in a way that has never been possible since the modern Iraqi state was founded in 1921. Even during the parliament that existed under the Hashimite monarchy (1921-1958), access to seats was limited by the dominant political elites of the time. However, in the current parliament, a Sunni Arab Speaker, Ayad al-Samarra'i, has been very effective in forging coalitions to pass legislation and offset sectarian tensions in the chamber, thereby winning him much personal respect. Perhaps equally important, the Speaker has been able to demonstrate to all groups, both inside and outside the parliament, that negotiation can be a more effective way to achieve one's political ends than violence.
Continuing the parallel with the parliaments that existed under the Hashimite monarchy that was overthrown in 1958, current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki doe not have the power that the king and his agents had prior to 1958 to summarily dismiss the parliament if they did not find it to their liking. While Maliki can complain, as he has done, about the alleged unfairness of the recent vote, he cannot overturn the results.
Third, few reporters emphasize what all observes have noted, namely that the elections were fair and transparent. The Iraqi High Electoral Commission (IHEC), the UN Special Representative, Ad Melkert, the Arab League's envoy, Muhammad Shalgham Al-Khamlishi, and US officials, all have underscored that the elections were characterized by only minor irregularities. The overall turnout of 62.4% which reached a high of over 70% in some Kurdish areas, was all the more impressive given the attempts of Islamist radicals and other insurgents to disrupt the elections through bombings and threats. Most important of all, these were elections in which no one knew the outcome, a true sign of a democratic elections.
Fourth, it is clear that the Iraqi public had a salutary impact on the elections in making clear that they want elected officials who can provide security and services, not empty rhetoric falsely clothed in the garb of "religion." Even the highly sectarian Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (ISCI) was forced not only to field female candidates (as required by the constitution), but offered posters in which women were unveiled and wearing makeup. While this observation is not terribly significant at one level, at another it indicates that the electoral preferences of the voting public are quite mature and that voters are no longer willing to support sectarian political parties. Indeed, one informal poll conducted prior to the elections indicated that only 3% of the likely voters polled said they were going to vote for candidates along sectarian lines.
Finally, the elections are remarkable when one considers the negative impact of Bush administration foreign policy between 2003 and 2007. The looting that US forces permitted in Baghdad in April 2003 destroyed much of Iraq's governmental infrastructure. The dissolving of the Iraqi conscript army in May 2003,the dismissal of the national police, and the firing of public sector workers, all provided thousands of men for Iraq's insurgency and sectarian militias. The elimination of agricultural subsidies in August 2003, which forced many farmers off the land as they were unable to compete with Iranian and Syrian agricultural imports, provided yet more men for the insurgency. And the Bush administration's establishment of the first ever government along explicitly ethnoconfessional lines, the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), that ruled Iraq from July 2003 until June 2004, sent a message to all Iraq's political actors and groups that sectarian politics were the new order of the day.
Few Western analysts, whether in the media, in public policy circles, in think tanks or in academia have made the effort to question the prevailing "group think" about Iraq. This creates a situation where those who seek to provide assistance to Iraq are seen as "naive" and on a "fools errand." The reasoning then becomes the following: Why should governments or foundations fund and politically support NGOs that seek to assist Iraq when these organizations fail to understand that Iraq will never be able to move forward towards developing a strong civil society and a democratic polity. In other words, the excessive emphasis on the negative in much reporting and analysis of Iraqi politics serves to promote a self-fulfilling prophecy, namely that Iraq will never transcend sectarianism.
The stakes in Iraq are too high to allow defective analysis in the West to dominate the global discourse on Iraq. If Iraq can establish a stable and multiethnic democracy, then such progress will provide a model that the citizens of neighboring countries will want to emulate as well. Analysts should think more carefully when they write about Iraq about the potential consequences of their writing for its future well being.