Lessons in politics

March 07, 2004

IT'S HARD not to get the feeling that as the various factions in Iraq bargain over a new constitution, they are only playing at democratic give-and-take - largely for the benefit of their somewhat clueless American overseers. The way a handful of Shiite members of the governing council sandbagged the constitutional adoption ceremony Friday certainly fuels that impression.

On Thursday, U.S. authorities were exulting over the way their Iraqi tutees were already learning the ways of politics, and preparing for a satisfyingly solemn and historic signing. On Friday, the Americans were trying to figure out what hit them - or what out-foxed them - and whether the Shiite end run was a tactic or a fiasco or a calamity.

Just because most of the people of the Middle East have little experience in representative government doesn't mean they don't have a good idea of how to bargain with - and, when necessary, betray - each other. Score one for the Shiites: They weren't going to hand over minority-rights protection to the Kurds or Sunni Muslims that easily.

Last week may have provided a useful glimpse into the future of Iraq. Horrifying bombings killed more than 180 people, and no one in charge was quite sure who had done it. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the leading Shiite cleric, denounces an interim constitution for straying too far from Islamic law; for their part, Shiite politicians worry that this same constitution is pulling a fast one on them, so what was a deal on Monday is a dead letter by Friday. The Americans are perplexed. Everybody else is outraged.

Now, remove L. Paul Bremer III and his legions of bureaucrats and 120,000 U.S. troops and ask yourself how much longer the negotiators in Baghdad would conduct themselves as if they were in Philadelphia in knee britches. Take the lid off and you can guess what would happen. That's why the lid's not coming off.

Worriers point to the well-financed private militias in Iraq, the continuing bombings, the assassinations of police officers, the porous borders, the huge number of weapons, the deep-seated resentments, and the inability of the CIA to make much headway in gathering intelligence - and warn that the country is in danger of slipping into a civil war. That appears to be unlikely (or at least premature). Some form of organized gangsterism would seem much more probable, and much easier to carry out under the noses of U.S. soldiers. How much of that will Washington tolerate? Iraqis are likely to find out.

What's striking about the Bush administration is that it's no stranger to devious tactics in domestic politics, but when it comes up against the same on the world stage it seems both outraged and unprepared. That will need to change; maybe it can learn something from the Iraqis.

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