All Writings
August 20, 2005

Constitution By Decree

The failure to complete the new Iraqi constitution by the August 15th deadline should have been foreseen by the Bush administration. Notorious for establishing arbitrary datelines, the White House has never quite understood the social, political, religious, and traditional dynamics of Iraqi society. Like a blind bull, the administration has charged about trying to overhaul a centuries-old way of life. In the process, its attempts to create an artificial connection between the fate of the insurgency and political development in Iraq–the writing of the constitution is one more example–will prove futile and counterproductive.

Granting a one-week extension for it to finish such a monumental task may force the constitutional committee to paper over the many remaining major issues of conflict. At best, the committee may produce some kind of political compact and deal with the real differences later, if only to save face and placate the administration. But there is a strong possibility that it will fail to achieve even such a modest compromise and, given the time limitation, the Kurds and the Shiites may simply decide to go it alone without the Sunnis. Either way, the real trouble lies ahead and the vain attempts to by Washington to produce an Iraqi constitution by decree will end in the same dismal failure as many of the administration’s Iraqi enterprises.

The administration’s efforts to stem the tide of the Iraqi insurgency remain at the heart of its Iraq policy. But if it believes that completing the constitution and then having elections for a new government will solve the problem of the insurgency, the administration is in for another rude awakening. During the past 30 months, the administration has repeatedly linked quelling the insurgency to an upcoming event, insisting that once the particular milestone is reached the air will be sucked out of the insurgents. The appointment of an all-Iraqi Governing Council was supposed to do the trick, but after it the attacks only increased. Next, the administration pinned its hopes on the capture of Saddam Hussein, and when this too proved to be of no avail, it believed that handing over sovereignty to an interim government would be the magic bullet, only to discover that this led to a further escalation of violence. And just as general elections, the establishment of Parliament, all major U.S.-led offensives, and the formation of a new government failed to end the insurgency, so will the present relentless efforts to write a new constitution do nothing to stem it.

Even a quick look at the issues that remain to be resolved reveals the administration’s naiveté and how tragically unwilling it is to learn from lessons of the past. Among the more serious stumbling blocks is the issue of federalism and how much power the central government should exercise. The Kurds want to preserve their autonomous rule in the North, and the constitution should reflect their right, if they choose, to secede later. The Shiites are looking to establish their own autonomous rule in the South, while both seek to maintain their own militias. The role of Islam is another sticking point: Shiite clerics are urging that Islamic law (Sharia) be adopted in matters of family and civil law, whereas the Sunnis and the Kurds are deeply concerned that this would undermine personal freedoms, especially for women. And of course there is the issue of Iraq’s vast oil reserves and how revenues generated from them are to be distributed. These are not merely “technical issues” as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq stated recently in an obvious attempt to minimize the differences. Yet tremendous and profound historical suspicion and animosity exist among the three main groups and, however civilly they act during their negotiations, each is already thinking about and planning for a potential future conflict that they believe is likely to unravel any agreement. But the administration ignores this reality because from day one it has been engaged in theatrics in Iraq to serve its own domestic political agenda, which is driven by a thirst for oil and profits for big corporations, as well as the upcoming U.S. elections.

The road to democracy is long, difficult, and often treacherous. It took centuries for democracies to establish deep roots in the West. How presumptuous it is for this administration to think that it can establish democracy by decree in Iraq. Although the American constitution that enshrined the rights of the individual was signed in 1788, it took a civil war in the next century to free the slaves, and it took 132 years before women gained the right to vote in 1920. People need time to adjust to any societal change, regardless of how positive or desirable the change may be. A county like Iraq, with such deep cultural, religious, and traditional differences and dominated by tribalism, in which the collective interest supercedes that of the individual, cannot be rushed or coerced to make revolutionary changes over a few months. Political maturity and adherence to fundamental democratic principles take decades to develop: consensus; compromise, tolerance, and the building of democratic institutions must be cultivated over a long period. The current interim government should have been given at least five years to sort things out for itself and begin, at a minimum, to nurture in the people some sense of trust and some confidence in its capability to develop and begin to institute a sound strategy for a common and shared future. Unfortunately, that was not part of this administration’s agenda. American troops are stuck, and neither the Iraqi police nor the Iraqi military are ready to take over from them, making it most unlikely that even limited numbers of U.S. forces can be withdrawn anytime soon. Meanwhile, American casualties are on the rise and the mid-term congressional elections are around the corner, a domestic reality the administration can hardly ignore. The Republican leadership in Congress is increasingly troubled by the deteriorating situation in Iraq, and this shapes to a large degree the White House’s agenda for the poor Iraqis who are caught between the American hammer and the insurgents’ fire.

This sorry story will not have a happy ending as long as this administration continues to wear blindfolds, refusing to see Iraq for what it is. It is not that the Iraqi people are incapable of ever joining the family of free nations or of growing and prospering with dignity. Given time, they can, indeed they must, for their own sake. But this is an Iraqi, not an American, enterprise. Looking for a way out of the morass, the Bush administration will eventually accept whatever formula the constitutional committee comes out with and label it, as President Bush said when the deadline passed, “a heroic effort . . . and tribute to democracy.” The administration will pretend that it is handing over well-trained and well-equipped police and military forces to maintain security and, promulgating this view, will begin the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces to coincide with the mid-term elections. Finally, the administration will declare one more time “mission accomplished” and leave the Iraqis to clean up the mess it created.