I received an email from Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman, whose recent column a criticized in the post below. His response, in its entirety:
I appreciate your thoughts on my column, and you're welcome to share my response with your readers. You say that the Bush administration was not the obstacle to elections--the security situation was. But security was far less of a problem early in occupation than it is today. If security were such an impediment then, how did we manage to hold an election now, when things are far worse? You omit the other reasons Paul Bremer gave after taking over in Iraq, which had nothing
to do with security. You also omit why the administration gave in, which was the need to appease Sistani.
You can never go wrong by disparaging Jimmy Carter, I suppose. But the most cogent objection to holding the elections now was not that it was impossible to assure adequate security to facilitate voting anywhere in the country. It was that violence and threats would suppress turnout in Sunni-dominated areas--depriving them of a voice in the new government and depriving the new government of sufficiently broad legitimacy. What we know so far about the Sunni turnout doesn't exactly refute the argument. For that matter, we don't even know how high turnout really was in other areas. I hope you're right that Iraqis came out in "massive numbers." But that has yet to be confirmed.
Let me first state that I sincerely appreciate Mr. Chapman taking the time to respond. To me, the greatest contribution of the blogosphere has been to make journalism and news more interactive. Constructive dialogue on the issues of the day advances not only coverage of the news, but the general population's understanding of them. I also think that Mr. Chapman's response is measured and raises important arguments that should be addressed.
But my original beef with Mr. Chapman's column was not our disagreement concerning the facts on the ground. My disagreement was with his tone and his assertions that the Iraqi elections were really no big deal, and his downplaying of the significance of what occurred on January 30th. Mr. Chapman, in my view, insults the Iraqis who braved mortars and risked their lives by comparing them to beer drinkers finding a bar (not to mention the religious undertones of comparing observant Shia's to the town drunk). Mr. Chapman does not respond to those points.
As to his actual response:
1. Yes, the security situation was better earlier in the occupation. But elections where not possible at that point because the Iraqis were not yet in a position to run the elections themselves. The IECI was barely in a position to hold those elections on January 30th, not just because of the security situation, but also because of the logistical nightmares involved in running an election. Sure, the US could have pushed for earlier elections. But those elections would have had to have been done under Coalition planning and supervision, not Iraqi. And the Iraqis would have claimed that those elections were illegitimate. And they would have been right.
2. Sistani's group definitely played a part in the timing of the elections. I certainly agree with that assertion. I also agree that there are other legitimate reasons for not holding the elections immediately: without the establishment and development of Iraqi institutions capable of supporting and sustaining a democracy, Iraqi elections would be a certain failure. The exact timing of the elections was a result of many different factors, some of which supported earlier elections and some that favored delaying the elections. I just think it's disingenuous to argue that the "chief obstacle" to elections was the Bush administration.
3. The IECI has not yet released turnout numbers. But even the Arab press has deemed these elections successful by any measure. I don't think we need to wait for the final number to come back to make that judgment.
4. As to Jimmy Carter, yes, he's an easy target. But it turns out even Jimmy Carter was able to muster more excitement than Mr. Chapman:
"Former President Jimmy Carter, who predicted that elections in Iraq would fail and in the past year described the Bush administration's policy there as a quagmire, this week ended 10 days of silence to declare the historic Iraqi vote 'a very successful effort.'
'I hope that we'll have every success in Iraq,' Mr. Carter said in a CNN interview. 'And that election, I think, was a surprisingly good step forward.' "
So now even Jimmy Carter is on record as now declaring the elections both surprising and a success. Maybe there's some hope for Mr. Chapman as well.