WASHINGTON — As the deadline for Iraqi elections approaches, the Bush administration is holding steadfast to its timetable. Jan. 30 will be Election Day in Iraq, says the president, come jihad or high water.
And every time he opens his mouth to reconfirm the date, the president gets hit by critics who call him pigheaded, uncompromising, and stubborn. They are right, of course. The White House's unwillingness to bend on the date is typical of this administration, which believes mistakes are things that other people make. It's almost redundant to say the president is holding steadfast: with a few exceptions, that's how he does everything - from his unwillingness to pink-slip his error-prone Defense secretary to his lack of interest in reconsidering economic plans made untenable by changing situations.
But here's the thing: The president is right on this particular point. Pigheaded? Yes. Uncompromising? Yes. But when confronted with the options he faces in Iraq, those are the appropriate stances concerning this election.
The news out of Iraq for the past half-year has been disheartening. The attacks, which everyone hoped would be waning, aren't. A leaked CIA memo reports that the situation in the country is disintegrating. A group of senators who returned from Iraq last week say much the same thing. And over the last few weeks, experts note, the violence has increasingly become an Iraqi-on-Iraqi problem, with Shiites and Sunnis taking aim at one another.
Granted, this is not an ideal situation for holding any sort of election.
But it simply isn't clear how postponing the elections will help with any of those problems. Some say moving the date back will help US forces and the handful of properly trained Iraqi soldiers to get control over the country. But how? Efforts thus far have hardly been smashing successes.
Even in Fallujah, which has been heralded as a major victory, we aren't really in the position yet to claim a win. In a guerrilla war, what seems like a victory one day can look pretty empty a few months later when the rebels who fled return with guns reloaded.
Thus, holding the elections in Iraq as soon as possible seems the smart course of action. With instability likely to rule the day in Iraq regardless of when elections are held, why wait? So give the president his due. He's right on this one, in a sort of "broken clock is right twice a day" way. Stubbornness can be a virtue sometimes - though it also helped create the current mess in Iraq. It was sure-minded obstinacy that led the administration to refuse to send more troops to calm Iraq even after some military commanders requested them.
But before we all go sauntering off into the holidays with visions of Iraqi George Washingtons and Ben Franklins dancing in our heads, here's a brief reality check.
The time to hold elections may be sooner rather than later, but there is still the little question of what good the elections will do whenever they are held. We can all hope that these elections help bring peace in Iraq - that certainly is the administration's line right now - but there is little evidence to support that thinking.
If there is indeed a need to heal the divisions between "red" and "blue" America after the November election, how is it that elections will help solve Iraq's much more momentous problems? The different constituencies in Iraq aren't going anywhere. Their feelings aren't any less firm than those of Americans still sporting their "W '04" and "Anyone But Bush" bumper stickers - they are 100 times as strong. Say what you will about red and blue America, the respective teams haven't taken to firing upon each other.
And as soon as the Iraqi election is over, whoever loses will immediately start alleging the vote was rigged or unfair or polling stations weren't safe. If voters in Ohio can question the legitimacy of the 2004 US presidential race, you know that people in a country where roadside bombs and gunfights are just part of getting around town can and will do the same - and with good reason.
Remember all that's on the line in Iraq's elections. They're about more than tax cuts or Social Security reform. This new government will draft a constitution. It will attempt to create a democratic government where one has never existed. Hard feelings and hard times are ahead. That's almost a certainty.
So yes, the administration is right to press ahead with elections in Iraq as scheduled: It's the best option on a list of bad options. But the White House should not think that it can get a vote in Iraq and claim victory in stabilizing the nation. After all the votes are counted and the government of the new "free Iraq" is enshrined, the bigger question will remain.
• Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.