October 05, 2005

When No Means Yes, Maybe

It has been the persistent hope, and in some cases strategic game plan, of the Bush Adminstration that the drafting of a constitution in Iraq, and the subsequent elections, might serve as a means of tamping the intensity of, and support for, certain strains of the insurgency. These two events are often cited as benchmarks of progress and facilitators for the anticipated withdrawal of at least some of the US forces from Iraq.

While the foreign jihadists and domestic Islamists (even, potentially, some Shiite militants) would likely be hostile to the formation of an inclusive and relatively liberal constitution, certain strains of Sunni insurgents might be tempted to forego the use of violence in favor of participation in the political process. This likelihodd is aided by the fact that at least some amongst their ranks have rued the fact that their boycott of the first round of elections has left them without a voice in the process. These factions are loathe to repeat such mistakes again. If the political process (the constitution plus elections) could in some way allay the Sunni population's fears that they will be disenfranchised, retaliated against, humiliated and eggregiously disempowered in the new Iraq (the sentiments adding fuel to the fire of some insurgencies), then a breakthrough might be possible.

The prospect for Sunni participation in the political process, and correlating abdication of violence, is tantalizing because of the possibility for splintering the insurgencies and turning them against each other. The foreign jihadists must rely on some level of domestic support, or tolerance, in order to continue their operations in country. But if we could peel away layers of Sunnis from the various insurgencies, while marginalizing and alienating the foreign jihadists loosely under the control of Zarqawi, we could make considerable headway against the stubbornly resilient armed resistance. Our quality of intelligence would be upgraded and local cooperation with coalition forces would increase in the erstwhile hostile Sunni regions - both vital components of any successful counter-insurgency strategy. This strategic maneuvering would be aided by the counter-productive tactics employed by Zarqawi's groups - including the brash targeting of civilians and provocation of sectarian tensions. At least some Sunnis are losing patience with Zarqawi regardless.

Of course, the potential to realize any of those gains is premised on the assumption that the constitution that will eventaully emerge from the process will appeal to enough Sunnis to actually make a difference with respect to the issues listed above. Unfortunately, in pursuining these ends, the constitution-drafting exercise has failed miserably - so far. The draft that emerged from the artificially expedited process has only served to confirm the suspicions and fears of the suddenly marginalized Sunni population - no doubt exacerbated by the fact that they were essentially sidelined for the duration of the process by virtue of their negligible representation in the legislature.

Within the text of the draft of the constitution is written the means by which the Kurds and Shiites will maintain control of, and reap the windfall from, Iraq's rich deposits of oil. The text provides for uneven distribution of profits based on regional contributions of resources and population concentrations, as well as ostensibly "temporary" quotas on the disbursement of funds from oil proceeds to pay for past wrongs (read: the Shiites and Kurds get more money from oil because they control the productive regions and suffered grievously under Saddam). In addition, there are apparent mechanisms for creating near-autonomous regions - most likely delineated along ethnic or sectarian lines with the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the South (the two oil rich areas).

The major Sunni groups have rejected this version based on what they perceive as in-built mechanisms to deprive them of economic and political power going forward. The document confirms their fears of what life will look like in the new Iraq. Even Shiite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr was originally opposed to the draft, most likely because his power base in Baghdad is not in an oil rich region and so he, too, would be out of the money loop.

At a time when the various Iraqi factions needed most to take an enlightened approach, to put aside the impulse to maximize on new found political power to the exclusion of others, the dominant Shiite/Kurdish faction decided to make a power play. Normally, a constitution would be the document that bridges gaps, broaches divisions and creates a consensus set of rules by which members of a nation would agree put aside differences, or at least let them play out in the political realm. In Iraq, a nation riven with often violent ethnic and sectarian cleavages, the need for consensus - or something approaching it - is even more crucial. From the disappointment of the process so far, it is not hard to understand what the International Crisis Group (cited by Greg last week) was getting at when they said of the constitution, as written:

At this point, however, without a national consensus embodied in a permanent constitution, there is little that can halt the slide toward civil war, chaos and dissolution. Drafting a constitution based on compromise and consensus arguably could have been a first step in a healing process. Instead, it is proving yet another step in a process of depressing decline.

In the wake of the draft's completion (sort of: Zalmay Khalilzad, the Bush team's most worthy representative in the region, to his credit, has been working feverishly even after the "completed" draft was submitted to get more Sunni-pleasing compromise into the document), some have expressed hope that the impressive numbers of Sunni's registering might be a sign of a new found appreciation of the political process. The Sunnis registering, appear to be doing so in order to try to defeat the constitution via the referendum planned for October 15. By doing this, I would argue, the Sunnis could learn to appreciate the potency of the ballot box and might be encouraged to view the December elections (which would be converted into elections for a new legislative body and constitutional drafting body by the referendum's defeat) as the next step in their political maturation. The Kurds and Shiites, it is hoped, would be forced to accept the fact that they need to work harder at consensus building - acknowledging and making concession for Sunni concerns. The politicization of the Sunnis, if met with some level of success at the ballot box, could serve the aims of splintering the insurgencies.

There would be a risk, however, that the Kurds and Shiites might just grow impatient and proceed with the fragmentation of Iraq. In addition, there is no guarantee that the Sunnis would become so enamored with the political process as to withdraw support from the various insurgencies. They could simply decide to hedge bets, and pursue all routes available - they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But the route of defeat in the referendum seems ultimately less risky than a further alienation of the Sunni minority. How can Iraq really hold together and avoid civil war and fragmentation if the founding document is forced upon the Sunni population. To quote Fred Kaplan:

A key breakthrough in Philadelphia was the Connecticut Compromise, which gave each state two senators, thus preserving the power of small states. But imagine there had never been this compromise. The constitution needed ratification by just nine of the 13 states in order to become the law of the land. Nine states might have signed on even without the compromiseóbut the union would not have lasted very long. The same is true of Iraq's constitution: Enough provinces may sign onóbut that probably won't be enough to build a durable Iraqi nation.

If the opportunity to extend a bridge to those Sunnis who might be fence sitting were lost, the Sunni population would be even more alienated, and any opportunity to isolate and marginalize certain strains of the insurgency would be wasted. On the contrary, there might even be an increase in support for the insurgency from a more desperate Sunni population with fewer and fewer alternative outlets and less faith in the political process and the intentions and designs of their fellow countrymen.

In short, the risks of Shiite/Kurdish withdrawal from the process would be worth taking in the interest of the long term health of Iraq - especially since the Shiites (if not Kurds) still have much to gain from a unified peaceful Iraq. Effective and inclusive constitutions take time to craft, and the arbitrary timeline placed on the process is not allowing for the emergence of the Iraq version of the Connecticut Compromise. That is why in Iraq on October 15, "no" means "yes."

(FWIW: The Shiites and Kurds have just reversed their earlier decision to change the voting rules to make a "no" vote virtually impossible. It is still unlikely that there will be enough "no" votes to defeat the draft via the referendum, but I still believe it would be the most prudent course of action).

Posted by at October 5, 2005 03:28 PM | TrackBack (11)

Hope. Might be. Could serve.

Personally I think Amb. Khalilzad is following the right course but, to mix metaphors, he is swimming upstream. The reason is the insurgency. Shiites and Kurds have good reason to doubt that Sunni Arabs who have not actively opposed insurgents so far will reciprocate the concessions Khalilzad is urging upon them. Mostly Sunni Arab insurgents have time after time deliberately targeted Shiite and Kurdish civilians for assassination and murder; Sunni Arab leaders seem nonetheless convinced that their people are the real victims. This line evidently plays better among some Americans than it does in Iraq.

How do we know this? Look at Sunni fears of "disenfranchisement." To Americans, disenfranchisement means you don't have a vote; to Sunni Arab leaders, it means that you don't have all the power. "Retaliation" means that prominent members of Sunni Arab clans could be denied government jobs, even if they were prominent figures in the Baathist regime. Being humiliated likewise means having to accept that the government is not automatically going to prefer any claim one might have to that of a Shiite or Kurd inferior. I'd bet you anything that when Saddam Hussein's trial gets started -- if it ever does -- the cries of "humiliation" from Sunni Arabs will be heard even over the sound of car bombs.

There may indeed be Sunni Arabs "sitting on the fence" and willing to work within the political process -- which means, ultimately, being willing to fight the insurgents -- if the constitutional formula can be worked out somehow. It's easy enough for us to say this, and say that the risk (or the opportunity) must be taken. In the shoes of an Iraqi Kurd or Shiite, would you feel the same?

Posted by: JEB at October 5, 2005 07:28 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Would I feel the same? Perhaps not JEB, but what you are suggesting is a prescription for fragmentation and eventually civil war (or if the violence occurs post-fragmentation, war between regions). From the way you describe it, there is no hope for a political solution, so why bother?

You might be right, but I still believe that we must make all efforts to forestall such a violent outcome - even if in vain.

The points of contention in the draft of the constitution have to do with control over oil, and the ability for different regions to form near-autonomous structures. The Sunnis know that, geographically speaking, they will have no access to oil proceeds and the economic clout they bestow. Those are tangible concerns that are not as subjective and exaggerated as some other you portray.

If we can compel the Shiites/Kurds to include the Sunnis in the economic system, and temper the regional autonomy provisions along certain lines, it may bring some Sunni into the fold - thus fragmenting the insurgencies. Keep in mind, not all insurgents target civilians, not all are trying to provoke sectarian violence, and not all Sunnis support all strains of the insurgency - and any such support does not have to continue indefinitely.

But above all, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain. If such concessions in the constitution don't work, then they don't work. But refusing to try is accepting, a priori, the outcome feared if such attempts are unsuccessful.

Posted by: Eric Martin at October 5, 2005 08:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well, Eric, I said at the beginning of my post that I agreed with the course Khalilzad is following. I hope it works; moreover I think Khalilzad is perhaps the one diplomat we have most likely to be able to make it work.

But the tenor of much recent commentary on this subject suggests that if it doesn't work, the reason will be Shiite and Kurdish unreasonableness. This is first of all unjust to the people who have borne the brunt of the insurgency. It is secondly careless of the fact that Sunni Arabs who do accept the political process will be required to do more than not participate in the insurgency. They will actually have to fight the insurgents, if only because attempts will be made on their lives anyway, and to date they have shown little inclination to do anything of the sort even after the most grievous atrocities.

Finally it is I fear unmindful of what the political traffic will bear in the Kurdish and (especially) the Shiite-dominated regions of the country. Concessions on oil and the structure of government by Shiites and Kurds followed by new acts of terrorism by Sunni Arab insurgents seem to me to be the things most likely to accelerate the hardening of attitudes toward Sunni Arabs among the majority of the population. It would be a good thing if the discussions taking place in Baghdad now had been possible around this time two years ago, but I don't think it's prudent for us to pretend that in the meantime the insurgency has not badly poisoned the political well in Iraq.

Shiite and Kurdish concessions are going to need to be reciprocated, and then some, by Sunni Arabs -- by active suppression of insurgent activity including action against non-Iraqi jihadi types, by some expression of contrition for the insurgency's crimes against civilians, by testimony of leading Sunni Arabs against Saddam Hussein and his associates. As Sunni Arabs were the main beneficiaries and support of Saddam's regime, and as they have been the main backers of the insurgency that has done so much damage to the country, so they will need to make most of the concessions.

Posted by: JEB at October 5, 2005 10:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Good points. Any Shiite/Kurdish unreasonableness should be placed in the context of ongoing violence against them, as well as past atrocities. In that sense, my rebuke for not appealing to enlightened interests was perhaps too harsh, or at least not mindful of the difficulties therein.

Unfortunately, the strategy of marginalization does not anticipate sudden reversals in Sunni regions. Change will be gradual, violence will continue and the process will of winning over converts will take time. As you say, this may harden attitudes before any beneficial results can be realized. And the well has been poisoned in the extreme. I have maintained as much all along.

Time is not on our side, nor are the better angels of the respective parties singing the loudest, but thus is the situation we are left to deal with.

And as I've said before, Khalilzad has been one of the Bush team's wisest appointments (though in comparison to some recently in the news, not high praise enough)

Posted by: Eric Martin at October 5, 2005 11:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

There is some evidence that the Sunnis are registering to vote in order to get the Constitution approved.

If that be the case, Eric's needs to be replaced with another.

Posted by: JohnFH at October 6, 2005 05:16 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

given the number of times we've turned the corner in Iraq to see the light at the end of the tunnel signalling the last throes of the insurgency, its difficult to understand why otherwise intelligent people think what happens with the current constitutional process in Iraq will make much of a difference.

The whole thing is rather a joke --- as demonstrated by the reference to the Connecticut compromise while ignoring the fact that the US Constitution took over 9 months to ratify, and it was almost four years before all 13 colonies accepted it after extensive revisions (the Bill of Rights). Yet we are supposed to believe that the Iraqi people will consider this process legitimate, despite the fact that the people voting on the proposed constitution were not provided copies of it until 2 weeks before the referendum that is supposed to ratify it.

The whole thing is little more than another made-for-American-television "blue thumb" moment, that will have little or no impact on what actually happens in Iraq. Its sole function is to make it possible for the supporters of the Iraqi bloodbath to delay the inevitable conclusion that this war has been an abject and catastrophic failure, and will continue to be one for as long as Bush is running things....

Posted by: p.lukasiak at October 6, 2005 12:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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