WASHINGTON – In a sense, President Bush is also on the ballot in Iraq.
Because it’s not a question of whether Sunday’s election will produce more violence and political strife, analysts said, but how much – and how that will affect Bush’s struggle to hold American support for the war.
“His credibility is riding on it,” said David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. “On the other hand, it is not clear what the criterion is for deciding what’s successful or unsuccessful.”
White House officials have spent days trying to tamp down any expectations that the vote will lead directly to American withdrawal; but they also argue that Iraqi voting is a huge step toward stability in the war-torn nation.
“The fact that they’re voting, in itself, is successful,” Bush said during a news conference this week, called in part to give his pre-election assessment. “Again, this is a long process.”
The optimum for Bush: A reasonably peaceful weekend with a high Iraqi turnout, an election he can realistically compare to the one in Afghanistan.
The worst case: Massive attacks that also claim the lives of more Iraqis and U.S. soldiers. By themselves, the Iraqi elections won’t mean much “unless the insurgency stops,” said John Mueller, a national security specialist who teaches at Ohio State University.
“It’s all about what’s happening to the American troops,” he said.
The rising U.S. death toll, now exceeding 1,400, is persuading more people to question the war, pollsters said. In a recent Zogby poll, 52 percent said the war has not been worth it.
Zogby predicted the election would be a “tipping point” for an American public increasingly restless about the war: “As soon as the elections are over – win, lose, draw, turnout, no matter what – Jan. 31 is the first day of the next phase, which is: What is the exit strategy?”
On Thursday, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who voted against authorizing the 2003 invasion, became the first senator to call for a gradual withdrawal, arguing that the ongoing American presence is helping fuel the insurgency.
“Sunday’s election is not a cure for the violence and instability,” Kennedy said.
The administration and its supporters have said a too-early pullout could turn Iraq into what Afghanistan used to be, a haven for the kinds of terrorists who designed the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Focusing on an exit strategy rather than a victory strategy is the wrong thing to do at this point,” said William Kristol, who as editor of the Weekly Standard advocated the removal of Saddam Hussein for years.
Pollsters said most Americans oppose an immediate withdrawal but aren’t very optimistic about the elections either.
“People will look at this in the longer term and see what happens on the ground,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “Casualties – that’s what it’s all about for the public.”
Security is only one of the potential problems, said analysts and administration officials.
There is also the prospect that the Iraq elections will create more political problems than they solve, due to the potential for infighting among the nation’s three major ethnic and religious groups – Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
“The big story is whether the Iraqis can get their political act together,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center For Strategic & International Studies.
With Sunnis calling for a boycott, and Shiite parties arguing with each other, the elections may well produce an imbalance vis-a-vis the Kurds. Post-election negotiations are expected to round out the newly elected National Assembly, which will draw up a new Constitution.
“There are basically going to be any number of backroom deals,” Alterman said.
A political mess could further alienate Americans from the Iraq effort, analysts said, although the primary threat to support for the war is the deaths of U.S. troops.
Bush and aides are likely to praise turnout even if it exceeds only 50 percent, higher than in many American elections.
“The fact that millions of Iraqis are coming forward to vote in spite of this absolutely brutal intimidation effort, I think says that we’re on the winning side,” said one senior administration official.
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