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Ex-Iraq Adviser Blackwill: Impact of Iraq's 'Extraordinary' Elections Likely to Spread to Iran

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Robert D. Blackwill, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
February 14, 2005

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Robert D. Blackwill, a presidential adviser to President George W. Bush on Iraq, says he was not surprised by the "extraordinary outcome" of the Iraqi elections. Predicting that democracy will eventually spread elsewhere in the Middle East, including Iran, Blackwill says the elections were "a shining endorsement of the president's strategy towards Iraq, where the critics have been pessimistic and wrong for well over a year with regard to the evolution of the Iraqi political process."

"Those who mock haven't been paying attention to the empirical data that's been piling up," says Blackwill, a career Foreign Service officer who was also associate dean at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "First, we had the Afghan election last fall with this extraordinary turnout. Then we had the Palestinian election. Then we had the Iraqi election. So this isn't a theory anymore, this is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East and it is absolutely revolutionary- these free and fair elections."

Blackwill, the president of Barbour Griffith Rogers International, a Washington-based Republican lobbying firm, was recently named the pro bono counselor of the Council on Foreign Relations. He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of cfr.org, on February 14, 2005.


Before we start talking about what's going on today in Iraq, can you first describe what your responsibilities were in the Bush administration regarding Iraq?

I had two sets of them as presidential envoy to Iraq. In Washington, I was one of the policy-makers for [then-National Security Adviser] Condoleezza Rice and for the president with respect to Iraq policy, and I ran a variety of interagency groups in that regard. Then, during the period from the late fall of 2003 through the transfer of sovereignty in late June 2004, I spent nearly four months in Iraq. There, I did a variety of things. Essentially, [the job] was to assist President Bush and the administration in bringing the Iraqis towards sovereignty as soon as was possible. That turned out to be the end of June, and involved a process which produced an interim constitution that was pluralist and democratic in character called the Transitional Administrative Law. Then, I helped to get the United Nations involved, which happened, as you know, in the spring of 2004. And then finally, along with the secretary general of the United Nations' representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, I assisted the Iraqis in choosing their interim government which has, of course, served in office from the end of June until now and will soon be replaced by the elected Iraqi parliament and a new government.

Let's jump to the elections. When the elections were held two weeks ago now, there were many doubters and skeptics. Were you surprised by the enthusiastic turnout in which 60 percent of the electorate voted?

No, I wasn't surprised. I, having the opportunity to spend quite a lot of time out there, was able to talk to lots and lots of Iraqis about whatever they thought about a variety of issues. The one thing they all agreed on- and this is especially true, of course, for the Shiites and the Kurds- was that they wanted a fundamental and democratic change in their history, and they wanted to go to the ballot box to reflect that. So, in the south, [Grand Ayatollah Ali] al-Sistani, the grand Shiite cleric, was urging the election to occur as soon as it possibly could and also urging Shiite Iraqis to vote. And then, in the north, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the two Kurdish leaders, also were urging their folks to go to the polls.

So, it was not at all surprising to me that you had this extraordinary turnout in a situation in which, of course, there was scattered violence. Wherever you were voting, especially in Baghdad and areas around Baghdad, you had to wonder whether you were going to be attacked by the terrorists. So, I think it was an extraordinary outcome. As you say, nearly 60 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. And when you take into account that the Sunni turnout was quite low, you really do get in many areas of Shiite Iraq an 80 percent turnout, and in some areas of Kurdish Iraq, you get a 90 percent turnout. So, it was really quite extraordinary. And it just shows, again, what the president has been emphasizing, which is that, if given the opportunity, people, whatever their ethnicity and from whatever part of the globe they come, will choose freedom of choice, including elections and going to the polls.

So, it was an extraordinary outcome and one that didn't surprise me. And I must say also, just one last point, that this was also a shining endorsement of the president's strategy towards Iraq, where the critics have been pessimistic and wrong for well over a year with regard to the evolution of the Iraqi political process. And they've been wrong on every single important pivotal event. They were wrong on the elections. And they will probably go on being pessimistic and go on being wrong.

Did the Sunni leadership, in your opinion, make a big mistake in urging its followers to boycott the elections?

Yes. I think it did. Now let me first say, before we get to their public pronouncements, that one has to have sympathy with Sunnis who live in areas in which there were death threats against individuals who would have had the purple ink on their fingers had they voted. But I think that the Sunni leadership did not serve the Sunni Arabs by recommending they not participate in this election, because what we will have is a parliament which doesn't accurately reflect the demographics of the society. And that is unfortunate. They made their choice. I think remedial steps will be taken by the new legislature and the new government to try and deal with this unfortunate choice on the part of the Sunni leadership and many individual Sunnis, but, yes, I think it was a mistake.

Let's talk now about the postelection politicking, which, of course, we don't know the results of yet. Could you describe some of the leaders of the main Shiite list? Among the most prominent is Adel Abdul Mahdi- is he a likely possibility to be the next prime minister?

I think he's one of the possibilities. Let me start more broadly and say that the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite list which was at least implicitly endorsed by Ayatollah Sistani, got about 48 percent of the vote, but the way the complicated electoral system will work in Iraq it will probably have an actual slight majority in the 275-seat assembly. And so, with that being the case, that coalition, naturally, would like to have its representative as the next prime minister.

However, having said that, there's fierce competition within that coalition about who that person might be. There are four different possibilities as we speak. One is the man you mentioned, Mahdi, the current finance minister. A second is [Ibrahim] al-Jaafari, the head of the Dawa party, one of the Shiite parties. A third is a man named [Hussein] al-Shahrastani, who is a former nuclear physicist- really quite an extraordinary guy- who spent more than ten years in Abu Ghraib prison because he wouldn't help Saddam build nuclear weapons. And, of course, there is [Ahmad] Chalabi, who also is working hard to become that person. So there is a question: Can that coalition, in fact, come to agreement on a candidate for the prime minister's position?

Is there any possibility that Sistani will endorse one of them?

Well, what he did when I was out there, with respect to the interim government, is he let it be known, not directly, that there were three individuals who would satisfy him and the clerical leadership. At that time, the three were Mahdi, Jaafari and Allawi, the current prime minister. Whether he'll do that again, I don't know.

But, since all four [leading candidates for the position] I mentioned ran on the Shiite list, I would assume it's unlikely he would actually veto any of them, but I'm not sure of that. So, the first set of questions has to do with whether the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite list, can in fact come to agreement with regard to who its candidate will be for prime minister.

That would be necessary but not sufficient for that person to become prime minister, because in the electoral system and the system for choosing the government that the Iraqis will implement, there has to be a two-thirds majority in the legislature for the president of Iraq and the two vice presidents. They, in turn, will choose the prime minister.

So, [the president and two vice presidents] will be a package. And, obviously, with slightly more than half the seats, this Shiite alliance does not have the votes to elect the prime minister by itself. So, it will need others. And the Kurds come to mind. They got 26 percent of the vote and will probably have 75 seats or so in the parliament. And so, that Shiite prime minister candidate, whoever it is from that list, cannot become prime minister without the Kurds agreeing. It isn't clear exactly which of those four candidates the Kurds would prefer. And then there is Allawi himself, who got about a million votes or so, 14 percent of the ballots cast, and he is politicking very hard now to be the compromise candidate, which both the Kurds and perhaps a fractured Shiite alliance might choose. So, for the first time ever, democratic politics is alive and well and enormously intensive in Iraq at the moment.

If you had to lay five bucks on this, who do you think is likely to emerge?

It's just not clear who will come out of this. It really isn't. It will be negotiated in backrooms and will involve lots and lots of negotiation. Let me say this about the Kurds: they will be preoccupied with three things as they make their deal. First, they want a Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, and that is very likely.

Does Barzani agree to that?

Yes, absolutely. Massoud Barzani will stay up north and Talabani would go to Baghdad to become the president of Iraq. And that seems really quite likely as we speak, although politics takes strange turns. So, that'll be first. Second, whoever the prime minister is must endorse the Kurdish idea about federalism, which means lots of disaggregated authority. The third is that the new prime minister must also endorse the approach toward the role of Islam in law in Iraq which was pounded out in the negotiations on the TAL, the Transitional Administrative Law, in which Islam is a source of legislation, but not the source. All of those elements will be part of the Kurdish negotiating position as the Shiites woo the Kurds with regard to who the next prime minister will be.

How does this impact the United States?

Let me just, if I might, step back and say something about what all of this means for the United States, where we are today. First of all, as I say, it's an extraordinary victory for the Iraqi people. They are the ones who went out and faced down the guns and the bombs and voted in these numbers we've been discussing. But, I do think, as well, it is a victory, a success, for President Bush's policy. He has had faith throughout that the Iraqi people, if given the opportunity, would in fact go to the polls in the numbers that have occurred.

Now, as we look forward, let me say that I think the government that emerges from this process we've been discussing seems likely to have the following characteristics- I can't do the personalities exactly, but the following characteristics. First of all, I think, it will be determined to defeat the insurgency. Second, I see no evidence it will want to have a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. I think it will have the same approach that the president, Allawi, Mahdi, and others have had, which is that U.S. troops will withdraw as the mission is accomplished and Iraqi security forces can take over the mission. Third, I don't think the government that will emerge will pursue a radical Islamic agenda or, to stretch even further, a pro-Iranian agenda.

That's just not going to happen with the government that is in the wings, whoever the personalities are. Whoever those folks are, I think, they'll be folks we and the coalition will work with, and [folks who] will promote democratic pluralism, but also prosecute the defeat of the insurgency to its conclusion.

Put on your Harvard hat for a moment. What's the impact of these elections and the recent Palestinian elections on the whole Middle East? After all, the president's been mocked by a lot of Democrats and others for the idealistic speeches he's been making about bringing democracy to the Middle East. Is this now more of a reality? Is this election going to put pressure on other states to reform?

The answer is yes. And, I must say, that those who mock haven't been paying attention to the empirical data that's been piling up. First, we had the Afghan election last fall with this extraordinary turnout. Then we had the Palestinian election. Then we had the Iraqi election. We're going to have a parliamentary election in Afghanistan in the spring. So this isn't a theory anymore, this is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East and it is absolutely revolutionary, these free and fair elections.

Now, the effect elsewhere in the region isn't going to happen overnight. It isn't going to be that some of these leaders who don't have sympathy for democratic practices are going to wake up in the middle of the night and have an epiphany and say, "Oh my goodness, we want to have our entirely free and fair elections, too." But I do think that, in aggregate, it does put pressure from the bottom up on these societies to move toward more freedom of choice in the political arena.

As I say, it won't happen overnight. Now, among those countries where I think it's going to occur is Iran, because you have the following peculiarity with respect to Iran. You had, last fall, Afghans who lived in Iran being able to vote in a free and fair election in Afghanistan. More recently, at the end of January, you had Iraqis who lived in Iran being able to vote in a free and fair election in Iraq. But Iranians themselves cannot vote in a free and fair election. Instead they have these sham elections run by this tiny clerical minority who runs the country. So I think in Iran too, as they watch the development of democratic pluralism, this is going to have an effect. Not overnight, I repeat. But the president's vision about democracy in the greater Middle East is happening, as I say. It's not confined to a speech. It's not confined to rhetoric, although it's important for the American president to lay out his vision. It's actually happening on the ground.

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