Iraq: good news means no news

Iraq has now taken another huge step toward stable democratic rule and no one seems to have noticed. While headlines this week followed Obama's every utterance and his cabinet's growing tax evasion problems, a story of historic proportions was unfolding in a nation that has dominated American politics for the past five years. Some 140,000 U.S. troops are deployed in Iraq, and over 4500 Americans have paid the ultimate price to create the conditions in which national elections could be held and a democratic government could peacefully take power. Just such an election occurred in Iraq this past week.

And it hardly made the news.

What a difference a year or two makes. Throughout 2007 and 2008, the debate that raged in Washington and among the pundits in the press was to whether Iraq was a "lost cause". Though evidence of the success of the "surge" being implemented by David Patreaus was clear to those who chose to see it, the media was having none of it. During the early days of the 2008 primary season, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both gave endless stump speeches decrying the war and the need to "bring the troops home now". Obama was convinced that the surge would fail, and continued to tout his "wisdom" in being the only candidate in both parties to be "against the war from the beginning". Even in the face of evidence that the surge was working, with U.S. combat deaths declining precipitously and security (and commerce) returning to areas of Iraq that were once uninhabitable, Obama never budged: Iraq was a failure, a mistake in judgment and the surge "too little, too late".

I'm sure the Iraqis who voted this past week would beg to differ. As Frederick and Kimberly Kagan wrote today in the Wall Street Journal, the Iraqi election not only reaffirmed democracy itself, but showed that voters are increasingly choosing secular candidates over religious ideologues:

Iraqi voters chose nationalist, secularist parties over religious parties by a wide margin. In the mostly Shiite south, candidates associated with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party appear to have gained significantly. This outcome is noteworthy because Dawa came to power in the 2005 elections with virtually no grass-roots support or organization. Few would have predicted Mr. Maliki's electoral success even a year ago.

In addition, the Kagans note that the influence of Moqtada al-Sadr has continued to wane. The former scourge of U.S. forces that lead the insurrection in 2006 following the bombing of the Samarra Mosque in Baghdad -- the spark that lit the sectarian tensions that threatened to subsume Iraq into Civil War. al-Sadr and his Mahdi militia ran roughshod over Iraq until the forces of the Bush/Patreaus surge prompted Sadr to disarm.

Moqtada al-Sadr, by contrast, relied on grass-roots support for his movement and seemed poised to dominate elections in the south a year ago. But he lost much of his popular support when Iraqi Security Forces defeated his militias in Basra, Baghdad and Maysan in June 2008. The door was open for the well-organized Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council (ISCI), the clerically dominated party that had controlled many important provincial governorships and councils in the south. Yet Iraqis voted instead for Mr. Maliki's coalition or for the secular Shiite coalition of former prime minister Iyad Allawi.

The Iraqi elections thus seem to have ushered in a new era of secular democracy, and provide the latest proof that the Iraq which George Bush has bequethed to the Obama Administration is well on its way to becoming a stable, functioning democracy in the heart of the Middle East. More importantly, these latest election results are a further blow to the efforts of Iran to destabilize that Maliki government in favor of an Islamic state:

The big loser in this election was Iran. Iranian agents spent a lot of money trying to influence the outcome of the elections in the south, and they largely failed. Iran's favored parties did poorly. The Iranians had hoped to persuade Iraqi voters to punish Mr. Maliki for signing the security agreement with the United States. Instead, these elections proved to be a powerful vote of confidence for the prime minister and his policies, including that agreement.

All of which puts Barack Obama in a great position to advance American interests in the region -- should he choose not to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  The continued presence of American troops -- as honest brokers in the on-going negotiations between factions and as a bulwark against the return of Al Qaeda -- is essential to cementing this fragile democracy into a steady and reliable member of the international community.

The presence of a stable Iraq with a democratically elected government is a gift to the world from George W. Bush. Pray now that Barack Obama doesn't follow the self-loathing instincts of those in the media and within his party who wish to isolate us from the world, and abandon this important and noble effort before it is finished.