The election in Iraq, though flawed, is terrific news. Any time a people get to use the ballot box instead of guns to make history, they, and the rest of the world, benefit immensely.
That more than 60 percent of those eligible are estimated to have voted despite the dreadful conditions in war-torn Iraq is a testament to the enormous courage humans so often display under extreme duress.
It appears, too, that the election will be something of a rebuke to those who preach a toxic blend of fundamentalism and nihilist violence, as was the case in last month's Palestinian election. But the test now, in both occupied regions, is whether the will of the voters will be allowed to be more than a symbolic gesture.
It is hard to imagine how the Kurdish and Shiite parties are going to finesse the fact that the Sunni religious minority that ruled Iraq off and on for centuries largely boycotted the election.
Yet, if the newly elected leaders can smartly wield real democratic power for the common good, it could be a major step toward a stable and legitimate Iraq. It would be hopelessly naive, however, to believe that the agenda of those elected will mesh smoothly with that of the occupiers, or do much to dampen the insurgency.
Very preliminary reports indicate that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's United Iraqi Alliance may have garnered a majority of the votes cast. This empowers the Iranian-born and Tehran-backed Shiite religious and political leader, who has been very firm on wanting an accelerated timeline for a US withdrawal. And an Abu Dhabi TV/Zogby poll conducted two days before the election makes clear that he speaks for the citizenry on this: About 82 percent of Sunnis and 69 percent of Shiites want the US military to leave "either immediately or after an elected government is in place."
One can quibble as to how fast they want that to happen, but there can be no doubt that the Iraqi election results are a historic victory for a posture of self-determination rather than subservience. Make no mistake: A clear victory for Sistani does not fit the White House neoconservatives' blueprint for creating a more pliable Middle East.
To be sure, President Bush did the right thing in pushing through the election, because the Sunni insurgency is not going to fade away as long as it can feed off the occupation's presence. But this positive moment will blow up in his face if it proves to be nothing more than a co-optation of the Iraqi people's strongly felt desire for self-rule. For the United States, acting in good faith is essential at this point. This past weekend, the nation took another embarrassing hit when the BBC reported that the United States' own auditors had found that nearly half of all oil revenues generated since the invasion cannot be accounted for--an astonishing $8.8 billion.
Iraqi voters risked their lives, and they deserve far more than a facade of democracy or a puppet strongman acting as the United States' "muscle" in the region, as Saddam Hussein did for so many years. They need to be given democratic and transparent control of their oil, their economy and their security. The election should also be the occasion for beginning the withdrawal of US and other foreign forces.
To be clear, this does not mean abandoning the responsibilities the United States has taken on by crushing Iraq through two invasions and a decade of sanctions. We should make sure Iraq's international debt is absolved and its infrastructure repaired, which will take billions of dollars and many years. But if we are asked to leave, we must do so, or expose all the talk of "liberation" as just so much Great Power rhetoric.
Unfortunately, despite our own democratic tradition, we have not historically been very supportive when weaker nations make their own history through the ballot box; we thrashed elected leaders in South Vietnam, Iran, Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Venezuela, Haiti and other nations. Yet, if we are to believe in the vision promoted so eloquently by this nation's founding fathers--and I passionately do--the only real hope for Iraq is self-determination with the good-faith support of the international community.
No matter what happens, it is going to be a long and messy process. Iraq and the Middle East have been frozen politically for too long. It will only be made worse, however, if the United States can't learn how to get out of the way.