October 15, 2005

Loose Lips

In light of a couple of recent posts (discussing Zal Khalilzad's last minute brokered deal to punt the major issues in the Iraqi consititution until a second constitutional panel and the potential political breathing room this might create), I can't say I find this very encouraging (via praktike):

Shiite leaders said the Sunni Muslims wouldn't win enough seats in the next Assembly to make major changes to the document next year. The document will remain largely the same when voted on again.

"The changes made (this week) on the permanent constitution were not very radical," said Saad Jawad Khandeel of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful Shiite political party. "Changes are normal, but I do not expect big changes" next year.

Convincing the Sunnis to view the political process as a legitmate means to achieve their goals, and in turn splintering the insurgencies, is sort of contingent on not telling fence-sitting Sunnis they don't stand a chance in the political arena. It makes Zal's hard fought compromise look like a case of the Shiites and Kurds appeasing the American interlocutor, with every intention of going back to business as usual at the first available opportunity. Don't these guys realize that when performing political Kabuki theather, the actors are supposed to stay in character. At least for a couple of weeks. Sheesh.

On the positive side, it looks like turnout was enormous, and violence relatively tame. Of course, this encouraging turnout will mean more if it is not just a popular expression of the deep divides between the various factions. Any chance for broader than expected support for the constitution? Let's hope.

Posted by at October 15, 2005 08:41 PM | TrackBack (1)

I think it speaks volumes about our problem with this war that you (a man of good will) start your posting with the trivia and follow up with a grudging mention of the momentous. In a way this should reassure all the Bush haters and anti-Americans, they really don't have to worry, no matter how well this new Weimar Republic turns out there will always be flaws and imperfections to point to to justfy their opposition.

Posted by: wayne at October 15, 2005 10:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

On the positive side, it looks like turnout was enormous, and violence relatively tame.

the source of this information is the Iraqi Election Commission---you know, the same folks who reported turnout of 75% in the last election. The NY Times has a significantly different view of the turnout....


Posted by: p.lukasiak at October 15, 2005 11:37 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


It is important to keep things in perspective. High turnout in January had little impact on the trajectory of Iraq - at least in the sense that the violence has continued (even intensified for Iraqis if not coalition forces), the various factions have assumed postures that are not conducive to forging a consensus political structure, partisan militias have become entrenched in positions of power, and the subsequent constitution has done more to confirm fears than assuage them.

Similarly, high turnout, even enormously high turnout, will not in itself have any beneficial tangible impact on the trajectory of Iraq.

Iraq will live or die with the ability of the various players to find common cause, abandon violence and the use of militias, work toward a unified nation that distributes power and wealth fairly to all groups, etc.

High turnout for this referendum accomplishes none of those things, nor does it greatly aid in the processes needed to achieve them because the constitution they are voting on accomplishes none of these things. If anything, it has made the situation worse by confirming fears of the Sunni population (as the ICG argued).

The best news over the past couple of weeks was what Khalilzad accomplished: the agreement by the various factions to consider changing said constitution later on. Of course, the Shiites seem to think their work is done in that regard, and I don't expect the Kurds are going to give too much on autonomy either. In other words, what is the solution? Where is the deus ex machina?

This is not about weeding through mounds of good news to find the doom and gloom. Iraq as a country will not be able to continue its existence unless the Iraqis can make headway with these most difficult and intractable problems. Nothing that happens today, short of a massive Sunni turnout in favor of the constitution, will change that. As of yet, I have seen no indication that the Sunnis have taken such a position. So everything that was plaguing Iraq before today, continues apace.

I wish all that ailed Iraq was a nitpicking left, trying to find the bad story out of what has otherwise been an amazingly positive, fruitful and successful foreign policy endeavor. I wish the Iraqi Interior Ministry had not issued reports stating that over the past year, an average of 800 innocent Iraqi civilian a month had not lost there lives amid the violence (that from a country less than 1/10th the size of the US population wise). I wish there was not a low level civil war bubbling just beneath the surface. I wish that all the factions would sit down, play nice, and agree that they can settle all their differences at the ballot box henceforward - each agreeing to disarm their respective militias which grow larger by the day. But Iraq is what it is, regardless of how I choose to describe it.

I can't change that with any level of optimism, pessimism, cynicism or sanguinity.

Posted by: Eric Martin at October 16, 2005 12:10 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


I wouldn't have used the term Weimar Republic if I thought we were dealing with a sure thing; but I'm encouraged that you have fully factored in all the negatives and will be surprised at anything that turns out right. I've been commenting on this blog for a while now and have constantly said we will not make Iraq into Santa Barbara in a few months. If the current constitution can be used to organize a quasidemocracy, like the PRI in Mexico, ANC in South Africa, etc. I think we would be able to leave the country better than we found it. Look for this vote to be trumpeted as a great success (which I think will be legitimate) and will a permit a drawdown of about 30,000 troops. Hopefully this will start the process of getting us out of the country, and leaving it better than we found it, if not a utopia.

Posted by: wayne at October 16, 2005 01:06 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Sorry for the stilted phrasing in the last entry - stopped in the middle and missed what I had already written when I came back to it.

Posted by: wayne at October 16, 2005 01:47 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


I could live with Mexico Part II, the Middle Eastern Version. Or the ANC. At this point, those possibilities are lookin' like a big sigh of relief.

In fact, I would be pleased with any outcome that forestalls a massive bloodletting (more than current levels, which also would have to come down), and a fragmentation of the nation into many sub-states. The latter scenario would, I believe, act as a vortex, sucking in many regional players (Turkey, Iran, Syria, possibly even Saudi Arabia, etc.).

Not to mention that the Sunni region could end up serving as a failed state smack dab in the middle of the region of the world where such a phenomenon would be most pernicious. We're talking Afghanistan on steroids.

Will this vote convince the insurgencies to stop? Will it drain support from the Sunni regions? Will it help to bridge the divides between Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites? Will even the Shiites and Kurds continue to work together now that the document they wanted is enshrined? What exactly about this vote will translate into any of those positive outcomes? What is the mechanism?

I guess I remain dubious. I welcome an outcome that, while falling short of Santa Barbara, resembles a rudimentary pre-democracy. My fear is Yugoslavia or Lebanon with a dash of Afghanistan.

Unless there is a solution to the insurgencies that involves coaxing enough Sunnis into the fold to cause a splintering in the ranks of the insurgents, I think larger conflict looms on the horizon. Not to mention those militias, which last time I checked, aren't going anywhere. Fast.

As usual, I hope I'm wrong on all of the above. What a tasty plate of crow that would be.

Posted by: Eric Martin at October 16, 2005 01:59 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

So the folly of the Iraq adventure is... what? That we replace one failed-state sponsor of terrorism with another of our own making? It seems to me that this prediction is a bit premature. In any case it is better to go down swinging than not to have tried at all.

Guessing about the future of Iraq on this blog involves a heavy dose of the "hornets nest" mind set. If we topple a dictator who was the worst of the status quo in the ME, we might make them madder at us than they already are; breeding more terrorists; etc.

Gosh, wouldn't want to make them madder at us; they might try to blow up the WTC or something.

Posted by: Chuck Betz at October 16, 2005 07:38 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't know how much difference it makes that American commentators have difficulty seeing events in Iraq as they must appear to Iraqis, but it probably makes at least some difference.

Those 800 innocent civilians a month may be said here to have "lost their lives" as if they were the victims of a natural disaster; my guess is that in Iraq they are mostly thought to have been killed, that their family and relatives have a good idea who killed them, and that they remember. Likewise we can speak knowingly of a "low-level civil war bubbling along below the surface," but it has been clear since 2003 that the violence is overwhelmingly coming from members of the Sunni Arab community and being directed at everyone else.

Nor is this all. I doubt there are many Iraqis who have forgotten that Sunni Arabs were the primary beneficiaries of Saddam's reign. They in turn supported him, supported his disastrous invasions of Iran and Kuwait, were fine with the Anfal and the decimation of the Marsh Arabs, backed him through the long years of sanctions brought on Iraq by his refusal to live up to commitments he made at the end of the Gulf War. The draft constitution denies Sunni Arab leaders the right to make all the decisions for everyone else in Iraq. That is why they oppose it. On the other side Shiites and Kurds have abundant incentives to have as little to do with Sunni Arabs as possible.

On the whole, the conduct of both the Kurds and the Shiites under Sistani's leadership over the last two years has shown a level of restraint that I don't think many people would have predicted in 2003. To some extent, clearly, this restraint has been a product of American pressure, but it could not have been entirely so. Nevertheless it is starting to fray. It is unlikely that a constitution negotiated in 2003 would have taken regional autonomy to the lengths the draft constitution has; Shiite Iraqis especially, as the largest group in Iraq, have good reason to want a strong country rather than a rump with ill-defined borders, dependent on Iran's good will. The growth of Shiite militias must be seen in the same context.

Support for federalism and a weak central government as well as support for the militias is a direct product of the insurgency, and to a lesser extent a legacy of the Sunni Arab-dominated former regime. Ambassador Khalilzad has pursued what at this stage is probably the only strategy with any chance of success -- he has held the door open for the Sunni Arab minority to have a role in Iraqi politics, just not the dominant role they are used to and so bitterly resent having lost. Sunni Arabs need to walk through it, and need to reflect this not just by voting but by physically dissociating from the insurgency. If they don't -- my guess at this point is that they probably will not -- a full scale civil war and the dismemberment of the country may indeed be likely. It is simply perverse to blame the Shiites and Kurds for the fact that this possibility exists. At some point their investment in forebearance and flexibility needs to be repaid.

Posted by: JEB at October 16, 2005 07:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

According to some of the more optimistic observers of this tragedy, I'm thinking especially of Christopher Hitchens, there are a lot more ties knitting Iraqi society together than we are acknowledging here. I have been surprised that an artifical construct of Churchill and Sykes and Picot could engage the commitment of so many disparate tribes/peoples/groups; but the evidence does seem to suggest that there is a nationalism that has effected people's choices in these deliberations.
I think JEB is correct that the instigators of this violence are known and are not going unnoticed either. I think the next major focus of Ambassador Khalilzad will be to try to institute some form of "affirmative action" for Sunni's willing to integrate into the armed forces. If that can be accomplished I would not be surprised to see some special forces type actions directed at the insurgent paymasters in Syria, to demonstrate that (pan-Arab) Sunni contempt for Iraq's national integrity will not go unpunished.
I am more optimistic than EM in the long run, but I do think this will be a slow, messy process, with many setbacks, and definitely not the type of conflict that plays to America's strengths. I think Bush will support this effort, at some minimal level, for the rest of his term while the haggling, bribing, patronage-granting, goes on - hopefully to lure enough groups into a polity that can defend itself against the nihilists.

Posted by: wayne at October 16, 2005 09:11 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

SCIRI is the one Shiite party most commited to the current constitution, and most resistant to accommodating the Sunnis.

Is it any surprise a SCIRI spokesman would say there will be no major changes?

Posted by: liberalhawk at October 17, 2005 02:51 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Is it any surprise that a spokesman for SCIRI, the most hardline element of the UIA, the one most recalcitrant about the Sunnis and federalism, would say there will be no major changes?

Posted by: liberalhawk at October 17, 2005 02:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

sorry for the DP.

some points -according to semiofficial returns

Nineveh province seems to have voted yes by over 70%. Thats a Sunni Majority province, and there was a high turnout. It would appear that some significant number of Sunni arabs voted yes. 20%? 25% This could be signicant in itself - there is a back up political strategy - if you cant win over all the sunnis, win over enough to break up Sunni Arab unity, and to steadily strip the insurgency down.

Basra seems to have voted over 95% yes. Where are the Sadrists? Sadr was opposed, and Basra is a Sadrist stronghold? what happened?

Posted by: liberalhawk at October 17, 2005 02:59 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Very encouraging about Nineveh. You are right, too, that all we need in the beginning is to win over enough of the Sunni fence sitters. A foothold if you will.

As for Sadr, he opposed it initially, but then switched to supporting it in the face of Sistani led pressure. That being said, I wonder what the vote looked like in Sadr City.


For the record, I am not blaming the Shiites/Kurds for the political stalemate. They have every right to be angry and vengeful - and their level of restranit has been truly remarkable (though, as you said, it is definitely fraying and will fray more as US forces leave the theater).

And the Sunnis are clearly not cooperating. However, you are not telling the whole story when you say that the Sunnis' only objection is that they will not be making every decision as they had under Hussein. It is possible, in fact hopeful, to believe that some Sunnis would accept less than that, yet want more than they are accorded in the current version of the constitution. For example, they might want a proportional and fair distribution of oil proceeds, and a proportional share of control over same. In the current text, they don't get that at all. As usual, money talks.

But my arguments are not about what's "right" from a normative perspective, I am merely talking about what needs to occur from a pragmatic point of view. The Shiites and Kurds might be justified in taking such a position and denying Sunni's a fair share of oil for payback of past crimes. They could be "right" all the way to civil war and fragmentation. For the US, and the region, though, I would say it's better to be wrongheaded and overaccomodating to the Sunnis than to have that occur.

Posted by: Eric Martin at October 17, 2005 03:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


I agree wed be better off if the Shiites and Kurds are more accommodating, and we should push them in that direction. The question is how hard?

Sen Carl Levin, the other day, essentially said that the Shiites and Kurds are unwilling to make the compromises needed for Iraq to work, and we should announce a withdrawl timetable, that will force them to do so, or bear the consequences.

I find that both morally indefensible, and strategically highly mistaken. The Shiites and Kurds are NOT a gang of generals running South Viet Nam, or a bunch of Afrikaners trying to maintain apartheid. They have reasonable demands, even if we disagree with specifics. How we treat them will impact how we are seen by people in different parts of the world who are inclined to be friendly to us, but are wary of our inclination to abandon our friends.

People seem to think there are only two viewpoints on how others see us - a Jacksonian lack of concern, and a dovish concern about others who see us as too aggressive. There is also a real, "multilateralist" concern about being seen as too weak an ally. That must be borne in mind.

Posted by: liberalhawk at October 17, 2005 03:56 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

re Nineveh

Im sorry, I may have been mistaken in my optimism. There are apparently accusations floating around that the Kurds packed Nineveh. While I cant imagine that they did so enough to change a 66% no vote into a yes majority, the Sunni Yes vote there may be smaller than I implied.

Id certainly like to see the results from Baghdad, the Sunni sections and Sadr City.

Posted by: liberalhawk at October 17, 2005 04:00 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"For the record, I am not blaming the Shiites/Kurds for the political stalemate. They have every right to be angry and vengeful - and their level of restranit has been truly remarkable (though, as you said, it is definitely fraying and will fray more as US forces leave the theater). "

which would seem to be an argument for keeping as many US forces in theater as long as possible, and not withdrawing them in anger at Kurdish-Shiite unreasonableness, as Sen Levin appears to suggest.

Posted by: liberalhawk at October 17, 2005 04:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

which would seem to be an argument for keeping as many US forces in theater as long as possible, and not withdrawing them in anger at Kurdish-Shiite unreasonableness, as Sen Levin appears to suggest.

Though perhaps counterintuitive given my political leanings, I am of that thinking actually. I think that we need to stick around in force for a lot longer than many other commenters from the left.

And yes, the Shiites/Kurds are definitely not the other unsavories you mentioned. Thus, we shouldn't push too hard or make too many unreasonable demands. At the end of the day, it is their country. But we should counsel for peace as much as possible - even if this includes urging them to offer concessions designed to woo certain Sunni factions.

How we treat them will impact how we are seen by people in different parts of the world who are inclined to be friendly to us, but are wary of our inclination to abandon our friends.

Agreed, but I am equally concerned about how we would be viewed if the Shiites/Kurds began a campaign of brutal crackdown and ethnic cleansing - with the active or tacit support of American forces who either assist in military operations or stand back and let it occur. The Muslim world is primarily Sunni (with the exception of Iran and minorities in other countries like Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others). I don't think the Muslim world will appreciate our loyalty to our friends in this context. It would be a disaster actually.

One more reason why I am not in favor of Levin's suggestion.

But therein lies yet another Iraqi borne conundrum: how to quell the insurgencies without appearing to be targeting Sunni Muslims unfairly? That is why it is imperative to win over enough Sunnis to cast this clash in different terms (easier said than done, obviously).

No easy solutions here.

Posted by: Eric Martin at October 17, 2005 05:58 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

did you see Hitch's piece in Slate today?

Posted by: liberalhawk at October 18, 2005 02:20 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Not yet. You could have saved some time with a link though...(I kid, I kid)

Posted by: Eric Martin at October 18, 2005 06:44 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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