Reframing the Iraq Election

Sharp criticisms have been made of the January 30th US-sponsored election in Iraq. The criticism comes from a broad range of elite opinion, stretching from Brent Scowcroft to The New York Times to the leadership of the Democratic Party. Though it seems that the election is deeply flawed and is likely to do more harm that good, President Bush is unshaken in his determination to press on. Is this another case of the President refusing to admit a mistake? Or is it that the Iraq election serves an altogether different purpose from that presupposed by its critics?


According to both mainstream critics and many in the peace movement, Iraq‘s election is being held too soon, before security conditions allow for a free election. Candidates can’t campaign freely (indeed, they are invisible). Voters in many areas will risk their lives if they go to the polls. Important and “moderate” Sunni leaders are asking that the elections be postponed, and the possibility persists that major Sunni political groups will boycott the election. Many details about the election mechanics also appear problematic. And some critics argue that the election itself may spark a civil war between Sunnis and Shi’ites, as it will inevitably lead to a Shi’ite-dominated assembly and national administration.


These criticisms are important and true. But they are built on two unstated assumptions that make them largely beside the point.


The first assumption is that a free election can be organized by an occupying power. The illegitimacy of conducting an election by an occupying power is at the core of the critique of the election by the antiwar movement and, indeed, by much of the world. Though this principle is fundamental to elementary principles of democracy, it is off the agenda for mainstream critics of the election.


The second assumption is that the Iraqi election is part of a plan to disengage the United States from Iraq. In this the mainstream critics mimic the limited dissent towards the Iraq war voiced by the Kerry campaign: a criticism of methods but not of ultimate goals. Yet there is no reason to think that the United States intends to end its occupation of Iraq short of the establishment of a regime prepared to accommodate the demands of the Bush administration. Within the context of a strategy to subjugate Iraq to the long-term needs of the United States, the Iraq election will serve an essential purpose, but one quite different from that assumed within the mainstream media and political debate.


Plans for a Long-term Occupation


The United States intends to make Iraq a client state. Control of Iraq‘s oil is a strategic and economic prize that would be impossible for the oil-dominated Bush administration to walk away from. We know now that the war on Iraq was initiated on the basis of overall strategic goals that pre-dated 9/11 and had nothing to do with terrorism or WMD. The prospect of a network of US military bases in Iraq — perhaps as many as 14 bases — would increase many fold the ability of the United States to dominate the Middle East. The privatization of Iraq’s economy, the opening of Iraq to foreign (US) investment, and the political importance of the company’s benefiting from the US reconstruction program in Iraq have already created a strong vested interest in continued US domination. This long-term commitment has been further clarified by the reconfiguration of the Bush team preparatory to its second term, as dissenters from the Bush policies in Iraq have been removed. In the past week President Bush claimed on several occasions that the outcome of the November election amounted to a mandate for his Iraq policies; and Seymour Hersh’s article in the current New Yorker provides confirmation from Washington insiders that the Bush team will push a very hard line in Iraq.


Moreover, President Bush and other administration officials have consistently stated that a US exit from Iraq must await the establishment of political democracy and the creation of an Iraqi military force adequate to maintain order. Free markets and an open door to US investments as core constituents of what “democracy” means for the Bush people, and their job will not be done until these goals are secured as well. Also, by definition, a democratic regime is run by “moderates,” understood by the entire spectrum of the US elite to mean political leaders who cooperate with US interests. Moreover, a strong Iraqi security force, agreed by all to be a prerequisite for US withdrawal, will be trained and equipped by the United States, historically a certain recipe for continued close links to the Pentagon and the CIA.


Thus, when President Bush refuses to discuss a timetable for US withdrawal, or links US withdrawal to political and security benchmarks rather than to the calendar, or when US general Tommie Franks states that US troops will be in Iraq for at least 10 years, we should discard any assumptions that the United States will leave Iraq voluntarily unless and until its economic and military goals are secure. US control of Iraq would be a stupendous achievement for the Bush administration and will not be lightly abandoned.


The Role of the January 30th Election for a Long-term Occupation


From this different perspective — that the United States occupation of Iraq is indefinite rather than limited — the Iraq election at the end of January assumes a different role and needs to be understood differently than the criticisms coming from mainstream or elite opinion.


Granting that the Bush administration would like to be in a much stronger position in Iraq than it is now, we can see that even an illegitimate and severely flawed election with a problematic outcome will meet important needs and serve many US interests. For example:


·                     Even critics of the election concede that postponing them beyond January 30th risks alienating the support or acquiescence of Ayatollah al-Sistani for the US-brokered political process.


·                     The election is mandated by the UN resolution recognizing the United States as an occupying power in Iraq; going forward with the election will further integrate the UN into the US occupation, while postponing it would risk bringing the Iraq issue back before the UN at a time of greatly diminished support for the occupation worldwide.


·                     Going ahead with the January 30th election will diminish the effectiveness of opposition to Bush policies by those who support a limited US occupation pending the establishment of a democratic Iraq government. In the area of nation-building, their criticism will amount to the ridiculous claim that the Bush people are proceeding too fast with democratization, and/or the self-defeating argument that more troops are needed in order to hasten the day when the United States can withdraw.


·                     Finally, it is widely reported that holding a “free election” in Iraq is a necessary condition for Britain‘s Tony Blair to be able to continue supporting the US in Iraq without further damage to the Labour Party and his government.


There are additional gains that are likely to flow from the January 30th election that also deserve our attention. From the perspective that the United States intends to stay in Iraq indefinitely, the undemocratic nature of the election, the likelihood of widespread violence on election day, the failure to include the Sunni minority within the political process and its outcome, the likelihood of a government dominated absolutely by Shi’ite politicians — and even the prospects of civil war — are not necessarily opposed to long-term US interests.


As in Vietnam and indeed any foreign occupation, the occupying power desires a government strong enough to maintain internal order and the conditions for doing business. At the same time, the client government cannot be strong enough to demand that the occupier leave, nor strong enough to dispense with the protection of the occupier’s military forces against internal or foreign enemies. That a Shi’ite-dominated government might ask the United States to leave immediately is indeed a danger; but a united, nationalistic Sunni-Shi’ite government would certainly demand an end to the occupation. A sharply divided Iraq will be more likely to accept US control of Iraq‘s military-in-training, rather than allow it to fall into the hands of one faction or the other, or to develop political aspirations of its own. Finally, a weak government, one needing a US military presence to provide a semblance of security and a US military shield against real or imaginary threats from Iran or Israel, will also serve the interests of long-term US occupation.


Moreover, any Iraqi governing body will have to come to grips with the physical destruction of their country. US political and military support for the existing pipeline of aid and reconstruction money is premised on Iraq‘s cooperation with the United States, and “cooperation” is clearly understood to mean cooperation with existing US interests. Conversely, the expulsion of the United States would make it almost impossible for Iraq to raise the vast sums necessary for reconstruction.


Finally, the prospects of civil war — perhaps the main danger raised by critics of Bush’s decision to go ahead with the January 30th elections — also take on a different meaning from the perspective of a long-term US occupation. For people in the United States, “civil war” calls up images of Antietam and Gettysburg. More likely would be a scenario like Northern Ireland, amplified by heavier military equipment. A civil war scenario in which Iraqis were the main victims would produce little additional pressure on the Bush administration to withdraw US forces, and could conceivably gain the occupation additional support, as the consequences of US withdrawal would threaten an escalation of the civil war.


A Scenario for January 30th


To understand the way in which the January 30th election will serve the interests of the Bush administration, we can try to anticipate the immediate impact that it will have on the US population. The Iraqi election is a variant of a “demonstration election.” Classic examples of a demonstration election are the US-sponsored elections in Vietnam in the 1960s, or in El Salvador in 1982. The purpose of these elections — organized, financed, and choreographed by the United States — was to persuade US citizens and especially Congress that we were invading these countries and supporting a savage war against government opponents at the invitation of a legitimate, freely elected government. The main purpose of a demonstration election is to legitimize an invasion and occupation, not to choose a new government.


A demonstration election depends largely on the cooperation of the mainstream media. The patriotic media’s role is to include in its reporting certain information or visuals while excluding others. For example, off the media agenda are discussions of the right of government opponents to campaign (without being killed); the absence of large-scale financing of favored candidates by foreign governments or patrons; the presence of meaningful freedoms of speech, the press, and assembly; the ability of voters to cast their ballots freely and safely without intimidation by domestic or foreign military forces or “death squads”; the existence of a truly secret ballot; an honest counting of the ballots; and the assurance that the person who gets the most votes will win the election. On the agenda for a patriotic mass media are primarily election-day items: a large turnout (indicating voter support for the election itself and thus identifying the election with “democracy”); statements by political leaders and “ordinary people” that they are voting because they want freedom; and ineffective opposition to the election, perhaps even military attacks, by opponents of the government. (In an election that the United States opposes, such as the Nicaragua election in 1984, the media’s priorities are reversed: on the agenda is the question of the pre-requisites of democracy; meaningless and thus off the agenda are the election-day events, the long lines of voters, etc.)


The situation in Iraq differs in significant ways from the classic demonstration elections in Vietnam and El Salvador. The most important differences are that there is no incumbent government, that the anticipated winners are not clients of the United States, and that the policies to be pursued by the expected winners of the election are far from certain. While the tools of election manipulation available to the occupying power are still considerable — financing campaigns, training candidates, assisting with publicity, etc. — Iraq’s election and election outcome will be far more problematic for US interests that the slam dunks in Vietnam and El Salvador.


These complexities, as well as the disasters of the occupation itself, have forced the Bush people to make significant adaptations to the US-sponsored election script. As framed by the Bush administration, rather than being an election in support of a particular candidate or policy, the purpose of the January 30th election is to show Americans and the rest of the world that the Iraqi people support the theory and practice of democracy itself, and that they are willing to identify “democracy” with the political process created by the United States. As this political process is, according to the Bush administration, the whole point of the occupation, the January 30th election is a drama to demonstrate Iraqi support for the occupation itself.


Under these circumstances, the dramatic tension of the January 30th election will focus on voter turnout. The US mass media has already established this framing of the issue, and the election-day spectacle will pit the desire of the Iraqi people to vote vs. the violence of rebels opposed to democracy. Few of the long-term or background elements of a truly free election will receive any media play, and the idea that a free election is incompatible with US military occupation will be completely off the agenda. That violence keeps many people from the polls, that many polling places will not be functioning, and that election officials, candidates, and even voters will be attacked by opponents of the US occupation will be important preoccupations of the US media on election day. (Anticipating these obvious problems, the United States has been taking steps to increase voter turnout — same-day registration, allowing voting at any polling place, allowing voting by Iraqis abroad, etc. — while at the same time trying to low-ball expectations of a strong voter turnout.)


Despite the problematic nature of the key election success indicator — voter turnout — it is predictable that the US media will present its election coverage so as to be largely favourable to Bush, and without questioning the strategy of “occupation until democracy.” For the greatest number of US citizens, the most important news about the election will come from television, and the most important pieces of information will be in the form of visuals, rather than voice-over. Election-day visuals are certain to feature lines — perhaps long lines — of people waiting to vote, interviews with Iraqi election officials and political candidates, affirmations by rank-and-file voters that they have hope for the democratic process and that they are proud to be voting in a free election for the first time, and cautionary notes by US spokespeople that the road to democracy is long and does not always run smoothly. Voiceovers will give the number of polling places attacked, polling places that could not open, towns or cities in Sunni areas where the election did not even take place, and voters and election workers killed. Depending on the geography of killing, there may even be visuals of dead voters or the aftermath of bombed polling places.


But the net effect of mass media coverage will be to frame the January 30th election to Bush’s advantage, and to the advantage of continued US military occupation. However flawed the election-day events, the media will accept the Bush administration’s claim that its intention is to bring democracy to Iraqi, and that rebel violence shows that it is democracy itself that opponents of the US occupation most fear.




The United States is in a military and political quandary in Iraq. It is apparent that it cannot “win” the war in any meaningful sense. The war is draining much of its economic strength and alienating traditional allies, and the Pentagon now finds itself constrained by a lack of resources from undertaking new military initiatives. The number of Americans, and even congresspeople, supporting an early exit from Iraq has risen significantly. The Bush Iraq policy faces a crisis of legitimacy. Yet the Bush administration has never been deterred by handwriting on the wall. To regain some of the legitimacy it has lost it will go ahead with the January 30th election despite the obvious risks and uncertain outcome. The hazardous position in which it finds itself is the result of many factors, not least the worldwide opposition to the war. Our opposition to the war will be strengthened by a clearer understanding of US long-term goals in Iraq, and by the role played by dramas such as the January 30th election in pursuing these goals.



Frank Brodhead is the co-author, with Edward S. Herman, of Demonstration Elections: US-Staged Elections in the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and El Salvador (South End Press, 1984).

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