The first issue with the Iraq vote is that too much emphasis is being put on the vote itself. A popular vote doesn't make a functioning democracy. A democracy requires legal institutions and governing infrastructure. Iraq has the beginnings of these institutions but much work is still needed. This is the area where conservatives' comparisons of Iraq to post-WWII German and Japan really fall apart. Germany and Japan had these institutions and had democratic governments in their recent history. Iraq has no such advantage. While voting is certainly part of building and maintaining a democracy, it is not the only important part. In fact, given some of the other issues Iraq faces, today's vote may not move the democratization efforts along very much at all.
The growing sectarian divisions in Iraq also stand in the way of creating a fully functioning democracy. Essentially, the Kurdish north and Shi'ite South dominate the national picture in Iraq, both because of the Sunni boycott of the provisional elections in 2004 and because of the concentration of oil resources in those areas. The Sunnis find themselves in an almost untenable position, which gives them little reason to cool the insurgency. Allegations in the past several weeks of Shi'ites abusing Sunni prisoners feed directly into the fears of the Sunni minority that a Shi'ite and Kurd dominated parliament could relegate the Sunnis to a second class status. The seeds of civil war are already sown in Iraq and a popular election that effectively creates an apartheid state makes an escalation of this war much more likely.
The problems of the Iraqi constitution must also be dealt with swiftly in order to give rise to a stable democracy in the country. The Sunni minority very nearly defeated the constitutional referendum, even after having boycotted the provisional elections. While the Kurdish and Shi'ite leaders in the provisional government were willing to pay lip-service to the notion of amending the constitution to make it more palatable to the Sunni minority, the reality is that a reaffirmation of Kurdish-Shi'ite control after the current elections effectively removes any incentive that the majority has to make such amendments. The Sunnis are unlikely to gain significant enough legislative power in the current elections to force such changes from within the framework of a weak coalition government.
Finally, for all that the occupation's supporters in the United States may wish to downplay it, the reality is that Iraq is a nation under the boot of a foreign occupation. No matter how much the United States may speak of "freedom" and a better future, it is still an occupying power and is the real force that legitimizes any Iraqi government. Several Republican lawmakers have said in the past week that the U.S.'s role in Iraq will be determined by the new Iraqi government, which is laughably absurd. There is no possible way that the Bush Administration is going to allow an Iraq which aligns itself contrary to U.S. interests in the region. For all of Bush's talk of a "free, democratic Iraq", the reality is that Iraq will only have so much freedom and democracy as will fit the Bush Administration's agenda.
Liberal Oasis has more on this line of thought:
Bush said nothing to indicate the goals of the occupation have changed. If you were skeptical of the policy before, you should still be skeptical today.
What are those goals in the near-term? Manipulating the choice for president and prime minister after the parliamentary elections are over.
As the NY Times reports today:
American officials fully expect that for months after the Iraqi election on Thursday the American ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, will remain the critical behind-the-scenes power in the creation of a factious coalition to run the country.
Why should that be needed after the Iraqi people elect representatives with four-year terms, who are empowered to then choose a president and prime minister?
Khalilzad gave a hint while on CNN this past Sunday, in response to the question, "Who's going to win?":
"Well, I don't think that any single party will have outright majority in the next assembly...
... So the next assembly will have various groups. They will have to form coalitions. The concerns of various parties will have to be dealt with.
And I think it will be very positive for the future of Iraq."
Khalilzad would not confidently and comfortably predict a result that the Bushies would not want to see occur.
In other words, we're playing Syria to Iraq's Lebanon, influencing the composition of their government by making [sure] the country's (illegitimate) leaders are dependent on our military presence.
The occupation of Iraq has become such a muddled mess of political machination, that it's nearly impossible to sort out the actual goals of Bush's policy. In fact, it's becoming clear that the Bush Administration itself is not in agreement internally any longer as to what constitutes "victory" in Iraq. The elections have just become yet another political gambit by which Bush can attempt to garner support for the occupation from the American people. So long as Bush can keep his rhetoric goal-oriented, then he can keep up the charade that a legitimate goal is on the horizon.
All the goals thus far for the invasion and occupation of Iraq have either been discarded or fulfilled. No WMD's existed so that rationale has essentially been completely put out of mind by the war's supporters. No credible link has ever been found between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida, which was obvious to anyone with even an elementary understanding of either party's interests. Saddam Hussein has long since been deposed as the ruler of Iraq, so that's "mission accomplished" on that count. Building a free and democratic Iraq, however noble in principle, is a goal that may be beyond the U.S.'s ability to accomplish. Even if such is possible, the time frame and benchmarks are so amorphous as to render the Iraq war an open-ended affair.
Given that Bush's preferred hat in the Oval Office seems to be that of Commander in Chief, this raises some very disturbing questions. The most important being: Given that Bush's prodigious use of military endeavors to define a nationalist patriotism in America has been his political strength, is there any reason to believe that the Iraqi occupation will end while Bush is President? I believe the answer is a resounding "No". The idealizing of the Iraqi elections is just a mirage concocted by the Bush Administration to rally his ideological base and marginalize those in opposition. Cheering for "victory" in Iraq from the sidelines is easy, as Bush and the war's supporters well know. Unfortunately, achieving a lasting peace and prosperity in Iraq is a much more difficult task, as our soldiers and the Iraqi people know only too well.