Iraqi Elections, a Tipping Point?

A few days ago I watched an ABC Nightline exchange between Thomas Friedman, a NYT columnist and Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the “Tipping Point”. The subject dealt with Gladwell’s theory that there are “tipping points”, sometimes very small ones, which trigger and lead to events of greater magnitude. Other than examples of disease epidemics, he cited the collapse of the Berlin Wall as leading to the eventual disintegration of the Soviet Empire, a sort of domino, or “butterfly” effect.

Friedman, an apologist for Bush policies in the Middle East, chimed in with the view that once developed the trigger for change acts as a contagion and spreads. In addition, he opined that the Iraqi elections could even be said to have played a role in bringing about the agreement by Israel to withdraw its troops from some of the occupied territories; responsible for the unified and universal condemnation in Lebanon against the Syrian presence.

When pressed by Koppel as to whether the elections in Iraq can now be seen as a turning point toward a stable democratic government, they both hedged. Well, said the two, we might just be missing a couple of essential ingredients such as a charismatic leader, a Gorbachev; such as a pre-existing movement along the lines of a Polish Solidarity movement.

Gladwell’s theoretical formula which might better apply to disease, and Friedman’s wishful thinking, both ignore the complexities in Iraq. There has been a tendency from the outset to use prior experience in replacing totalitarian regimes with democratic ones. The US offered post WWII Germany and Japan as examples of how such regimes could be successfully followed by liberal democracy completely ignoring the historical and cultural differences between those countries and the Middle East. In the case of both Germany and Japan, we were dealing with countries with well educated populations, intellectually, and industrially highly developed; in both cases education and technology were held in high regard. Iraq, on the other hand, as a country, has abominably low literacy rates, and with the exception of oil, does not have an industrial base. Under the thumb of a series of dictators and despotic monarchs little has been done to educate the people. Their religion, that of Islam, once the driving force behind one of the most advanced civilisations had become one of the most backward technologically and intellectually repressive. To compare the Germany and Japan with Iraq is truly to compare apples and oranges.

Another of the complexities which I have raised in the past is the Kurdish question, which came to the fore in yesterday’s news. Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdish regional government, not surprisingly, fired the opening salvo in the bid for power in the New Iraq. The Kurds are offering to throw their votes to any coalition which will support their control over the Kirkuk oil fields.

Since the Shia did not win sufficient seats to name outright the senior government posts of President and Prime Minister they are forced into a bargaining position. Giving away the rights to Kirkuk oil fields would not materially affect the Shia as they are sitting on reserves much larger than those in Kirkuk. However, it would surely enrage the self-disenfranchised Sunni already feeling marginalised politically. Where does this leave the Sunni in the grand scheme of a united Iraq? There are no oil fields in Sunni territory, and whatever industry there was has been pretty much obliterated by the war. Presumably the Shiites will also want that all the oil fields in their part of “Iraq” be designated as “their oil fields”.

Furthermore, and probably more to the point, why are the Kurds talking about the oil fields being “their” oil fields? I thought the idea was to continue the fiction of an Iraqi national entity, and all that goes with it – all Iraqis sharing not only politically, but economically, including all the natural resources in the territory first created and called “Iraq” in 1920 by the British.

If the Shia, having won 48% of the vote and a majority of the seats, were to refuse Barzani’s demands then what? If Barzani were able to strike a deal with a coalition of, let us say, Allawi’s party, which garnered only 14% of the vote, plus a ragtag grab bag of other vote getters and cobble together a government, where would that leave the Shia. Despite representing 60% of the population they would once again be a majority ruled by an alien minority, this time the Kurds. No, somehow, I do not see that as a viable option. In fact I can only see it as a recipe for disaster, a civil war or a move to partitioning of the country, probably the best answer in any case..

From the outset of the Iraqi debacle I have never subscribed to the unrealistic scenario of a united Iraqi nation embracing these three disparate cultural groups. They were killing each other when the British invaded Mesopotamia in 1919 and since then have been held together only by a series of brutal dictators

Now that the latest of the despots is no longer around, they are free once again to pursue their own provincial interests and hound each other. They are not in the least interested in Bush’s high flown rhetoric about a unified, democratic Iraq, and they will give it lip service so long as it serves their interest, but no longer.

The elections may have been a Tipping Point, but it remains to be seen in which direction the constituent parts of that country will be tipped. My view is through a glass darkly.


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