Cheers for the Iraqi voters, but the war's bitter taste lingers

February 06, 2005|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - Last year, The New York Times reported a statistical breakdown of terrorist attacks in Iraq that left my jaw hanging. According to these figures, that nation was sustaining about 2,300 such strikes a month.

That works out to 76 bombings, shootings, mortar attacks and landmine explosions "every day" in a nation about the size of California.

If I lived in a place that suffered that much mayhem, I don't know that I'd feel comfortable even standing in line for groceries, much less standing in line to "vote."

One can only be awed, then, at the guts shown by millions of Iraqi men and women who defied terrorist threats and pessimistic projections last week to participate in that nation's first free election in five decades. The most conservative estimate of voter turnout I've seen puts it at 60 percent. It's a number that should uplift us - and shame us, too, given that we live in a nation where nobody has to brave bullets to cast ballots, but turnout in most presidential elections hovers around 50 percent.

Yet after you finish thanking the Iraqis for this modern-day profile in courage, the question remains: What next? What does this mean, not simply for the Iraqis, but for us?

A few days ago, I posed that question to a colleague, a veteran observer of international affairs. He made an interesting point. What matters, he said, is not Iraq's first free election, but its second. Point being, the test of a nascent democracy is not just its ability to let its people vote, but to do it again, to transfer power in an orderly and peaceful fashion.

Nor is that the only unknown. There is also the question of whether Iraq's Sunni minority will regard the election's outcome as credible. The Sunnis voted at significantly lower rates than the rest of the nation, because the areas where they live are strongholds of insurgent violence and because Sunni leaders called for a boycott of the balloting. If Sunnis do not respect the outcome of the vote, Iraq's next step could be a lurch toward civil war.

For all those uncertainties, though, the one that troubles me most isn't about what happens there, but what happens here.

Meaning the danger that the White House will regard the success of the Iraq vote as a validation of its decision to invade that country.

Given that the administration is prone to picking and choosing facts the way some people do daisies, that's hardly a far-fetched idea. Consider how it has repeatedly changed its rationale for war while behaving, with a sincerity that is positively Orwellian, as if it has changed nothing at all.

The war was about a search for weapons of mass destruction until that didn't work out and it became mainly a war about fighting terrorism, until it was repeatedly pointed out that Iraq had no documented connection to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and it became mainly a war to liberate a tyrannized people.

Change your rationale often enough and eventually you'll find one that sticks.

So on the likelihood the White House will consider itself vindicated by the Iraq vote, let me say something that ought not need saying: Heartening as that vote is, it does not change the circumstances under which we stumbled to war, does not change the pattern of misstatement, overstatement and willful self-deception that has thus far cost 1,400 American lives and an untold number of Iraqi lives. Nor does it change the fact that this was the wrong war at the wrong time because it did not serve the most vital issue of national interest.

It did not make us safer from terrorism.

Of course, at this point there's no turning back. Now that we're in it, we need to win it, so the success of last week's vote is a good thing.

Still, as you watch the conga line snaking through the West Wing, it's worth remembering that adage about wringing something sweet out of something sour.

Last week's lemonade might be tasty, but there are still plenty of lemons left.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.