Every time Iraq goes to the polls, America beams with parental pride at the spectacle of a people once terrorised by a brutal dictatorship, now enjoying the freedom to chose their own representatives. While genuinely competitive, multiparty democracy, is all too rare in the Middle East, what the American national dialogue tends to ignore is the outcome of those elections. It treats the very fact of voting as a benchmark of Iraq's progress towards stability, tacit confirmation of the Bush Administration's vision of it serving as a model of democratic stability.
But the election results confirm, instead, that Iraq remains a weak state in which a national consensus remains elusive, and which is plagued by sectarian and ethnic rifts that could easily revert to civil war. Domestic schisms that replicate wider Middle Eastern tensions, combined with the fact that the US has not rebuilt an Iraqi military capable of defending the country's borders, leaves Iraq potentially facing perennial political instability, and playing the role of battle ground in others' struggle for regional hegemony - a fate not entirely unlike Lebanon's.
The French bequeathed Lebanon an inherently dysfunctional system that allocates power on the basis of the demographic balance of sect and ethnicity of 70 years ago, which no longer represents the reality on the ground. In Iraq, the Americans - perhaps mindful of the dangers of the strong centralised government of Saddam and in an attempt at inclusivity - established that most inherently unstable of western political structures: the proportional-representation parliamentary system.
Even in relatively stable societies (Israel is a good, if ironic example) proportional representation produces inherently fragile governments hamstrung by the breadth of interests they have to accommodate to maintain a ruling majority. But in an Iraq haunted by the spectre of civil war, where a majority of voters remain stubbornly inclined to cast their ballots on the basis of sect, ethnicity and tribe, it has been a recipe for political deadlock and paralysis.
We are all familiar with the failures of the current government to make progress on national reconciliation, or to resolve such critical issues as the fate of Kirkuk, the distribution of power between the centre and regions, and the terms for sharing of oil revenues. But consider what we know about the latest election results: With more than 80 per cent of votes counted, we're told, the State of Law coalition of prime minister Nouri al Maliki is narrowly ahead of the Iraqiya coalition of the former US-appointed prime minster Ayad Allawi, each with around 90 seats. Both of these blocs are secular in name, although Mr Maliki's base is more moderate Shi'ite, while Allawi's drew most of the Sunni vote. Running third is the Shiite religious Iraqi National Alliance with around 65-70 seats, the bulk of those being won by supporters of the radical cleric Muqtada a Sadr. Then comes the Kurdish bloc that runs the autonomous zone in the north, corralling just under 40 seats, the remainder going to a smattering of smaller parties.
What was to be the final election before US troops depart appears to have produced no winner, and the mechanics of forming a new ruling coalition, which requires 163 of the 325 seats in the legislature, will be protracted and complicated. The possible permutations are many, few of them natural alliances, although the bargaining is already underway. It could take months to create a new government, and the process could conceivably fail.
In the interim - filled by a Maliki government unable to govern effectively even if it were inclined to do so communal tensions could rise. Much of the calm for which the US troop surge is credited was created by a combination of a Sadrist ceasefire and the decision by the bulk of the Sunni insurgency to align with the Awakening. The latter group's sense of betrayal by Mr Maliki could be exacerbated by any political outcome that again sidelines Sunnis.
Iraq's future is far from settled as the US moves to draw down most its combat forces by the end of August, when the number of American troops will fall from 95,000 to 50,000, as a precursor to their complete withdrawal by the end of 2011, as required by the Status of Forces Agreement between Mr Maliki and former President Bush. US combat forces are no longer sent out on patrol to fight insurgents; internal security is now almost entirely the responsibility of Iraqi forces, facilitated by US mentoring, logistics, intelligence and air support. Still, there's a not entirely unspoken understanding that the Americans are the enforcers of last resort: For example, the US commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, has repeatedly stressed that the drawdown schedule could be altered if the security situation along the Kurdish-Arab fault line in the north remains a cause for anxiety. There's also an unspoken assumption that the US military deters Iraqi security forces from taking advantage of the long-term political stalemate to launch a coup.
And what is already abundantly clear is that the nature and armaments of the Iraqi forces that have been built from scratch by the occupation authorities after they dissolved Saddam's military are in no position to defend the country's sovereign border against foreign invasion by land, sea or air. Those forces that have been deployed are largely trained and configured for domestic counterinsurgency. Iraq's fledgling air force, for example, has not a single fighter plane.
So, right now, it's a long shot that the US will ostensibly leave behind a stable Iraq at the end of next year. Either it will stay for a lot longer than it says - a difficult call given the burdens on the declining hyperpower - or it had better get on with negotiating that elusive "grand bargain" with all of Iraq's neighbours to ground rules for stabilising regional strategic rivalry. Not exactly the new Middle East of Bush's imagination, but without a regional understanding between the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey - as well as the Iraqis themselves - Iraq could remain a perennial source, and theatre, of regional instability.
Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York who blogs at www.tonykaron.com.