Cost-benefit analysis Washington Post style

This Washington Post article recounts the debate within the administration over whether to proceed with last January’s Iraqi elections on schedule. According to the Post, the president’s top advisers were split, with no clear consensus. However, President Bush didn’t wait for consensus. Rather, he insisted that the elections go forward as scheduled.

Post reporters Peter Baker and Robin Wright are not inclined to give Bush credit for making what surely was the correct decision. Eventually, they concede that what they choose to describe as “deadline democracy” managed to “propel the process forward and appears on the verge of creating a new government with legitimacy earned at the ballot box [while resulting] in a constitution often described as more democratic than any in the Arab world.” But they nonetheless characterize Bush’s decision as “one with distinct costs and benefits,” suggesting that by proceeding on schedule the administration “failed to produce the national accord it sought among Iraq’s three main groups, producing a schism that could loom beyond Thursday’s elections.”

This claim strikes me as nonsense. Baker and Wright do not even attempt to explain how delaying the January elections would have produced a “national accord.” The only clear consequence of delay would have been to alienate Shiite leaders like the Ayatollah Sistani upon whose support we depend. Beyond that, delay simply would have kept the three factions frozen where they were.

Indeed, late in their piece Baker and Wright admit that holding the elections in January broke the stalemate and caused the Sunnis to begin earnest participation in the democratic process. “In a dramatic shift after the January elections,” they write, “Sunni groups that had boycotted the election and therefore won only 16 of 275 seats in parliament declared they wanted to help write the constitution.” Baker and Wright make this concession only by way of attacking subsequent decisions by the administration. But it fully vindicates Bush’s decision to proceed with the January election. Don’t expect the Washington Post to acknowledge this, though.

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