Now They Vote

You’d have to have a very hard heart not to be moved at least a little by the pictures of Iraqis going to the polls; going to the polls, moreover, with little idea what their votes will bring; just clear that whatever happens, it’s different from the past.

As to what the vote means, let’s wait a while and see. I’m amused/bemused to read Andrew Sullivan, who on Friday asked how we might judge the vote’s "success."

The amusement/bemusement is twofold. First, Sullivan throws out a set of blind metrics in his post: He suggests "over 50 percent turnout among the Shia and Kurds, and over 30 percent turnout for the Sunnis. No massive disruption of voting places; no theft of ballots. Fewer than 500 murdered." (I find that death figure appalling and outrageous on so many levels it’s hard to sit still and sort them out. Yes, that will be a great success if you’re not one of the 499 or one of their daughters, sons, wives, husbands, mothers or fathers. And: What’s 500 more lives on top of the tens of thousands spent already? And: The nerve of us Yanks, whether we support this war or not, to talk about these lives so casually).

But the thing that really kills me about Sullivan’s success metrics is the way they bounce around. Last week, Chris Matthew asked him to define success, and he said, "Success is 80 percent turnout in–in most of the regions, extremely enthusiastic voting among the Kurds and the Shias, and better than expected among the Sunnis." And today, after letting reality, or whatever it is, sink in a little, he offered this: "My revised criteria: 45 percent turnout for Kurds and Shia, 25 percent turnout for the Sunnis, under 200 murdered. No immediate call for U.S. withdrawal. Reasonable?"

No, not reasonable. But not because the numbers are off. Because they’re a sort of game we’ve all gotten used to watching the media and our leaders play. That game is both a cause and a symptom of the trouble we’re having understanding what’s happening in Iraq (and much of the rest of the world, including the United States, but that’s another post for another time). We’re so impatient for results that we have to know even before we’ve covered over the seed whether it’s growing yet.

When the media plays this way, it’s a game that’s nearly childish in its antsiness to be first to say what it all means. That’s a trait that leads to quick acceptance of announcements like "Iraq’s about to unleash weapons of mass destruction on the United States" or "the Iraqis will love us when we get there" to "major combat is over." Let’s just have a decent respect, for once, what we don’t know about all the dimensions of Iraqi reality and admit that some percentage figure won’t tell you a thing, by itself, about where this is all headed.

Of course, I do have my own opinion. I can’t imagine this working. I just don’t see how an alien power, especially one with as little credibility as we appear to have among Muslims in the Mideast, can both violently overthrow a government and impose a democratic replacement (much less one capable of creating the oasis of stability that Bush talks about).

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