The Bush administration and its supporters are investing tremendous hope in Iraq’s January national elections.  According to the conventional wisdom in Washington, violence may increase as the balloting approaches, but, once the election is held, the overwhelming majority of Iraqis will be convinced that the resulting government is legitimate.  Except for the foreign terrorists and the Saddam dead-enders, the insurgents will gradually give up and participate in the democratic process.  Violence will subside, and a stable, united, democratic, pro-Western Iraq will emerge, allowing the United States to draw down her forces stationed in that country.

It is a charming vision, but those who cling to the Iraq mission previously invested their hopes in other purported milestones that would dampen the insurgency.  For most of the warhawks, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime was supposed to be the defining moment.  American troops were to be welcomed as liberators, and Iraqi exiles, led by the Pentagon’s favorite politician, Ahmed Chalabi, would become the successor government in Baghdad virtually by acclamation.  Much to the surprise and dismay of the pro-war faction, it didn’t turn out that way.

Then, the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 was the great milestone.  Since virtually all insurgents were supposedly Ba’athist followers of Saddam, his capture would dishearten the rebels and cause the insurgency to fade.  Instead, the insurgency flared with unprecedented ferocity in the spring of 2004.

Next, proponents of the Iraq mission attached great importance to the hand-over of nominal sovereignty in late June 2004.  With American officials no longer directly running the show, Iraqis would certainly rally behind the interim government of Iyad Allawi.  That proved to be another faulty prediction; the insurgency intensified.

The national elections will likely prove as disappointing as the previous milestones.  Indeed, the elections may make matters even more difficult for the U.S. occupation force.

Contrary to the Bush administration’s hopes and expectations, the elections are likely to produce a government not only controlled by the Shia majority but dominated by religious parties and candidates.  In other words, the “new Iraq” is probably going to be Islamic, not secular and pro-Western.  It was the fear that the elections would lead to a highly religious government that caused the Kurds (the most secular of Iraq’s factions) to side with Sunni leaders in proposing that the balloting be postponed.

To make matters even worse for the United States, the new government may be quite friendly to Iran.  Tehran is skillfully exploiting linkages with its Shia coreligionists in Iraq.  The two most influential politicians in Iraq are the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.  Both men have long-standing ties to Iran.

There is a chance that the elections will prove to be the panacea for which the pro-war faction is hoping.  That chance, however, is remote.  Iraq was always inhospitable soil for planting a secular, pro-Western democracy.  Democracy involves far more than just setting up institutions and holding elections.  To be viable, it needs a strong culture of tolerance.  Democracy requires that majorities accept and protect individual rights, observe due process of law, protect freedom of expression, and protect property rights.

All of those values are weak or entirely absent in Iraq’s political culture.  Thus, we should not be surprised if the new Shia-dominated government uses its power to oppress the Sunni minority that was the oppressor for so many decades.  Nor should we be surprised if the new national assembly draws up a constitution that enshrines the most coercive aspects of Islamic law and bears almost no resemblance to the American Constitution.  The real surprise would be if the political process in Iraq turns out otherwise.

Those who hope that the January elections will be a panacea for Washington’s foundering mission in Iraq are almost certainly doomed to be disappointed yet again.  One wonders what panacea they will cling to next, since they seem to be running out of options.