By all reports, yesterday's election in Iraq was a success. Security at the polls was good, the level of violence was low, and the turnout was exceptionally high. Everyone must admire the courage of the Iraqi people for coming out to vote in the face of very real threats. One can only wonder how high turnout would be in the U.S. if voters here faced even a fraction of the danger Iraqis take for granted.
The election will no doubt leave an enduring and important legacy in Iraqi and even Middle Eastern history, though just what that legacy shall be will take a very long time to emerge, if indeed it ever "stabilizes" as the event is interpreted and reinterpreted over time. For the present the election is the first step in a year-long process of institution building planned to culminate in the popular ratification of a new constitution in October and the election of a government under that constitution in December. If the Coalition can meet those two threshholds and conduct those two votes with equivalent results (and I suspect they will) the current Iraq policy will have scored a significant success.
Will this event produce a universal consensus on the wisdom of the Bush administration's Iraq policy? The historical legacy of the Iraq war in American memory is likely to mirror American political opinion over the coming months. Though the election is an inspiring event, if the insurgency and casualties among both coaltion forces and Iraqis continue American opinion is likely to see-saw. Whether or not the institutions in place at the end of 2005 can stand in the absence of U.S. military force will play a large role in shaping public perceptions. If after Iraqis institute a new constitution and elect a new government U.S. soldiers are still dying in Iraq opinion about the Coalition mission is likely to be mixed.
I personally see much promise in yesterday's elections, but I would temper that optimism with caution. The success of yesterday's election leaves hope that the next year will see the formation of an institutional structure that can, in the long term, form the nucleus of a stable and effective Iraqi sovereignty. However, in the short term the formation of that structure will not, I fear, end or significantly slow the rate of casualties among U.S. forces. Ultimately U.S. forces are likely to leave an Iraq still plagued with insurgency and violence, and the constitutional order built over the course of the next year will be forced to establish itself through a costly contest of arms.
Will Iraqis be better off if a democratically elected government emerges from that civil war (provided the democratic operation of its institutions survives the degrading influence of civil violence)? Yes. Will that definitively prove the wisdom of Bush policy? Not likely. The coming year is sure to bring many unanticipated events both within Iraq and in the world at large. Unknown costs will have to be paid, both in U.S. blood and treasure and in the opportunity price of foreign policy conducted under the handicap of a continuing heavy commitment in Iraq. All told, the only certain prediction I would be willing to venture is that the legacy of the Iraq war will remain uncertain for years to come.