The best way to build a stable Iraq is to give as many Iraqis as possible a vested interest in building stability as soon as possible. And the best way to do this is to have elections to choose a democratic government that will empower Iraqis to take control of their own future.
The Bush administration has made a commitment to a rapid transition to democracy that would include completing national elections by the end of January. Yet some critics contend this is an unrealistic goal. They argue that the situation in Iraq remains too unsettled for elections for a 275-member parliament, which would then establish a constitution and pave the way for still more elections. They claim that at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces are not yet safe enough to have elections.
But the critics' proposed solution -- indefinitely postponing elections until security is restored -- is a risky and counterproductive strategy that would make the restoration of security less likely.
Postponing elections would hand the Iraqi insurgents a victory and encourage them to step up their attacks. It would strengthen their propaganda claims that the interim government led by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is merely a puppet regime controlled by the United States. Moreover, insisting on complete calm before having elections would give insurgents an effective veto over when there could be elections.
The result would be no elections at all. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has pointed out, "That part of the world tends not to be perfectly peaceful. It never will be, in my view."
Pessimists doubted that the Iraqis could write their own constitution, assemble an interim government, or regain their sovereignty on the timetable set by the Bush administration. But they were proven wrong on all counts. And the Oct. 9 elections in Afghanistan, which the Taliban threatened to disrupt with attacks, proceeded without major problems, confounding the pessimists who doubted that there could be elections there.
The United States should make every effort to give Iraqis the power to choose their own government as soon as possible. If realities on the ground -- civil war, a massive shift of public opinion to the militants, problems with voting machines, or other unpredictable factors -- do prevent free and fair elections throughout the country, then the U.S.-led coalition should encourage the interim Iraqi government to call for rolling elections that would be held in stable areas and extended to other areas as security improves.
The government should hold open seats in parliament to accommodate those elected later. Once residents in these areas see a viable representative government emerge elsewhere, they likely will work harder for peace and stability in their own areas.
The United States can help by making restoration of security the highest immediate priority, allowing the United Nations to play a limited and mostly symbolic role in facilitating the elections, promoting federalism to instill stability, priming the Iraqi economy with accelerated aid and encouraging economic freedom.
But most important, the United States promised democracy on a timetable. We should keep that promise and adhere to that timetable as closely as is practical. We need to step back and let Iraqis step forward when it comes to running their country. The sooner Iraqis are empowered through elections to take control of their own future, the sooner they will turn against the insurgents and restore stability to Iraq.
James Phillips is a research fellow in Middle Eastern affairs and Jack Spencer is a senior policy analyst for defense and national security at The Heritage Foundation, a think tank whose stated mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies.
First appeared in United Press International