Failure is an option

August 19, 2005

THE UNITED States is continuing to lean on Iraq's political leaders to come up with a constitution by Monday, the new deadline - but this is misguided, for two reasons. One is immediate, the other longer-term.

Right from the start, a constitution that is perceived to be dictated by Americans is that much easier for Iraqis to oppose. If the constitution itself and the process of ratifying it and putting it into action are to be asuccess, it must be a home-grown one. Iraq needs a government of its own.

American pressure to reach some sort of agreement by Monday on deeply divisive issues also asks for trouble down the road, because these are issues - involving oil revenues and federalism and the role of Islam and of women - that defy quick solutions. A bad constitution - which is the most likely outcome of meeting the deadline - is worse than no constitution, and sets the stage for bitter rancor and probable bloodshed.

When the Iraqi National Assembly decided last Monday to keep trying for one additional week to come up with a national charter, it was clearly the best possible course to take. The factions had to show they were trying and not ready to give up on elective politics. But this additional week has already helped to concentrate minds, and bring some of the problems into focus. If the various sides haven't hit on a winning formula by Monday, maybe then it would make sense to start over.

Under the current law, new parliamentary elections would have to be called. This of course runs the risk of exasperating the voters. But at the same time it offers the opportunity to bring Sunni Arabs, who boycotted the last election and lived to regret it, back into politics. Sunni sheiks and other leaders - even those who may have one foot in the insurgency - can be brought to the table. It would require an extraordinary effort by the current government and by the United States to reach out to them. And it would probably require promises of amnesty and perhaps of a phased American military withdrawal, or at least a stand down. But there are Iraqi politicians who believe this could work, and the very obvious benefit is that it would divide the insurgency, leaving the religious fanatics isolated.

A further possible benefit is that new elections could weaken the power of the increasingly unpopular Shiite religious parties that control the current government, and of their Iranian allies. That's why they so badly want to craft a constitution by Monday. Perhaps it's time for the U.S. to stop helping them, and put the brakes on instead.

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