The people's choice

December 22, 2005

The footing is getting more slippery in the Middle East. Iraq will soon enjoy a government elected by a majority of its voters - which once would have seemed like an astonishing accomplishment. This is the government that American troops will be defending, and in fact it resembles quite closely the interim government they have been defending. That's the bad news.

Preliminary results show that Shiite politicians who ran on a strongly religious platform did far better than any others and will hold the power in Baghdad, such as it is. The problem is that, although their supporters are numerous, the depth of antagonism toward them from nonsupporters is profound. The current government has shown a penchant for torture, extrajudicial killings and corruption. It is Iran's best friend.

Sunni Arab politicians are hopping mad over what they claim is widespread voter fraud, the evidence primarily consisting of the fantasy that Sunnis are somehow an actual majority in Iraq, when in reality they probably make up about 20 percent of the population. In the large sense, their complaints are probably baseless - but that won't make it any easier to achieve the sort of reconciliation that is necessary to hold Iraq together (it might make it harder).

The American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been working tirelessly to try to bring the various sides together, but he has more than a few strikes against him. The U.S. military is the prop on which the current government relies. At the same time, the U.S. government openly favored a secular slate that seems to have received an extremely modest share of the votes. Moreover, the United States opened the door to torture at Abu Ghraib prison - a disastrous turn of events that will have lasting damage on America's standing in Iraq. And, lastly, for those Iraqis paying attention, there is the spectacle of President Bush declaring himself to be above the law in the domestic wiretapping scandal. This is perhaps unprecedented in American history and certainly no model at all of democratic government, where the rule of law is as important as the rule of the majority.

The future of Iraq now depends largely on the common sense and generosity of spirit of the triumphant Shiite politicians, which is an unsettling thought. A nasty internecine conflict is threatening, and this throws into question what exactly will be the objective of American troops in the months to come, and for whose benefit will they be facing insurgent bullets and bombs. Iran seems to be coming out the winner. At one time this might have raised the interesting possibility of a long-awaited rapprochement between Tehran and Washington, but with Holocaust denier and nuclear weapons aspirant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad now in charge in Iran, this would be both unlikely and ill-advised.

A crucial period now begins - crucial to the whole Middle East and to America's role there. The fear is that the Bush administration simply lacks the competence to understand and successfully pursue America's best interests.

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