It has been nearly a week since Iraqis stepped into the ballot box and made history once again. Even some Western experts who predicted a 55 percent-60 percent turnout were surprised when the election commission announced that 62 percent of Iraq voted. Partial results released Thursday evening from five of Iraq’s 18 provinces showed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with a slight lead. Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi was doing well in Sunni areas north and west.
Final results may take weeks “setting the stage for intense political maneuvering,” The New York Times predicts. According to the Associated Press, “No bloc was expected to gain an outright majority, meaning that those who do well will have to negotiate to form alliances and choose a prime minister.”
In a column on Tuesday, Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal offered his impression of the elections: “In the run-up to the vote, the general view among Iraqis and foreign observers alike was that the outcome was “too close to call.” Linger over the words: “Too close to call” has never before been part of the Arab political lexicon.” The New York Times editorial on Tuesday spoke of the Iraqis “tremendous courage and determination.”
The U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, called it “a new beginning for the U.S. relationship with Iraq that we hope will stretch for decades to come.”
Reaction tallied by MSNBC from U.S. Soldiers was mixed. They have “a long way to go before they can truly become a government for the people,” one Soldier said. Another was struck by the “resilient, loyal and deeply spiritual people” the Iraqis are and “the determination to make their country great in their soldiers who sacrifice like we do.”
Another Soldier said it’s time for the Americans to go home. “From here out, I think it is up to them if they want the changes or not. We need to realize that this is the time to get out.” He was quick to give high praise to a country the Americans have invested in heavily over the last seven years. “I do believe there have been drastic changes in the last year or so and the Iraqi people are starting to build confidence in their government and their military. I have faith in their country and want to see them succeed.”
The top U.S. commander, Gen. Ray Odierno, had his own bit of good news for U.S. military involvement. “We’re on track to be down to 50,000 and change our mission. There’s nothing today that tells us that we don’t think the Iraqis will be able to form this government in a peaceful way and begin to move forward. I believe we’re talking about a couple of months. The people of Iraq have embraced democracy.” On Sept. 1, 2010, Operation Iraqi Freedom will become Operation New Dawn as we “recognize our evolving relationship with the Government of Iraq,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in a memo last month.
In an interview earlier this week, Gen. Odierno responded to a question from Michael Hastings, a journalist for Newsweek magazine and author of the blog, The Hastings Report. In the exchange, Mr. Hastings asked Gen. Odierno what constituted a possible “major” troop presence in Iraq after 2011. In the General’s mind, “major” would mean 2,000-3,000 U.S. Soldiers. A former top official, who served in Iraq, told me that number is in line with what Odierno has privately conveyed to some Members of Congress over the last few months.
So, what does all of this mean for Iraq? Well, we know what it doesn’t mean. “This war is lost and the surge is not accomplishing anything.” Those were the words of the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, in April 2007. In March of that same year, Secretary Gates was cautiously optimistic when asked about the surge on CBS’s Face The Nation: “So far so good – it’s very early.” Fast forward to last Sunday when Secretary Gates seemed heartened by the resolve of the Iraqi people: “We couldn’t have written a script from the vantage point of March 2007 to be where we are today with the low level of violence and significant turnout for election.”
Spot on, Mr. Secretary and now there’s even praise for the former president. Well-known columnist Tom Friedman of The New York Times recently wrote, “Former President George W. Bush’s gut instinct that this region craved and needed democracy was always right.”
As John Feehery, of The Feehery Theory, penned in his column on Monday, “It used to be fashionable to joke about President Bush and question not only his smarts but also his sanity, especially when it came to Iraq. It may be fashionable in the future to acknowledge that the former President just might have been right in his vision of a free, democratic and prosperous Iraq.” That’s where we can add in that “healthy dose of ‘Thank you, George Bush,’” to use the recent words of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Scott Sadler is an experienced communicator with an in-depth expertise with crisis communications who has served in senior level positions in the Federal government, Capitol Hill, and in a military theater of operation.