Strict constructionism

October 09, 2005

Iraqis will have a chance later this week to go the polls and help decide what sort of a nation theirs is going to be. The constitution that they'll be voting on was the product of a deeply unsatisfactory process and is itself profoundly flawed. The Bush administration is banking on its approval anyway, and at this point that looks likely. It might be better if it went down to defeat - in a true democracy, after all, people are allowed to vote "no" - but if it passes, the sheer hard work and politicking that will be required to overcome its deficiencies will be daunting.

The constitution was drawn up without significant input from the Sunni community and is being presented to voters without an endorsement by the national assembly. It embodies a view of "federalism" that is the opposite of America's: Kurdish and Shiite fiefdoms will achieve something close to autonomy, including autonomous control of oil revenues. It envisions an Iraq in some ways similar to the warlord-ridden Afghanistan that emerged after the retreat of Soviet forces there in 1989 - a decentralized collection of arbitrarily ruled statelets. The most interesting to observe might be the Iranian-flavored, fundamentalist Islamic republic in the south.

Afghanistan experienced a decade of bloody internal conflict and the rise of al-Qaida, and still struggles to establish central authority. That could be Iraq in the very near future. In this view, the proposed constitution might be characterized as the U.S.-backed roadmap to war.

Proponents concede that the constitution is lacking, but argue that it can be fixed. No charter can be perfect, and this one at least allows for the election of a new government that, with a modicum of good-faith bargaining, can begin to work out mutually agreeable reforms. The process will maintain forward momentum, and that could open the door to a drawdown next year of U.S. troops, currently at a high of 152,000. If the constitution is defeated, according to this argument, American forces would have to remain at current strength for far longer.

But the signs are not in the least encouraging. Communal violence grows by the day. Last week, Shiites and Kurds together tried to bend the voting rules in a way that would ensure passage of the constitution; they backed down in the face of international pressure, but this is surely a sign of further finagling to come. At the same time, Kurdish and Shiite political leaders have begun denouncing one another. Sunnis are shut out altogether; no sensible attempt has been made to try to draw them away from the insurgency.

The Sunni Arab insurgents receive support from organizers in other Arab countries. The religious Shiite organizations are in close harmony with Iran. The Kurds want to be left alone; any bellicosity on their part in defense of Kurdish interests would be viewed with deep alarm in Turkey next door. Thus the table is set. Americans must understand how much intense diplomatic effort will be required, if the new constitution passes, to keep Iraq from being consumed in violence. But no one in Iraq or among its neighbors will view the United States as an honest broker; too much has already transpired for that. Difficult, dangerous times lie ahead.

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