The political game
Peter Wehner's article in the Opinion Journal, The Wrong Time to Lose Our Nerve, describes the reservations of George Will, William F. Buckley and Francis Fukuyama none of who believe the Arabs apt to democracy. William Buckley began his article in the National Review by examining the proposition that the troubles in Iraq were America's fault -- then asserting the reverse: no, it was Iraqi society that was intractable.
"I can tell you the main reason behind all our woes — it is America." The New York Times reporter is quoting the complaint of a clothing merchant in a Sunni stronghold in Iraq. "Everything that is going on between Sunni and Shiites, the troublemaker in the middle is America." ...
Our mission has failed because Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000 Americans. The great human reserves that call for civil life haven't proved strong enough. No doubt they are latently there, but they have not been able to contend against the ice men who move about in the shadows with bombs and grenades and pistols.
George Will took a different road to the same result. In his speech at the Manhattan Institute Will argued that the Iraqi peoples lacked only the essentials to make democracy work. Other than that they were perfectly suited to spread freedom in the Middle East.
Iraq lacks a Washington, a Madison, a Marshall—and it lacks the astonishingly rich social and cultural soil from which such people sprout. From America’s social soil in the eighteenth century grew all the members of the Constitutional Convention and of all the state legislatures that created all the conventions that ratified the Constitution.
So, Iraq in its quest for democracy lacks only—only!—what America then had: an existing democratic culture. It is a historical truism that the Declaration of Independence was less the creation of independence than the affirmation that Americans had already become independent. In the decades before 1776 they had become a distinct people, a demos, a nation—held together by the glue of shared memories, common strivings, and shared ideals. As John Adams said, the revolution had occurred in the minds and hearts of Americans before the incident at Concord Bridge
Francis Fukuyama is quoted by Opinion Journal as saying that one cannot "impose" democracy on "a country that doesn't want it". His alternative as set forth in another Opinion Journal op-ed is apparently to stand back, then deal with the last man standing in ways that will encourage them to do the right thing.
Private foundations and groups with some distance from the administration like the NED or private NGOs will have better luck disbursing money than U.S. agencies. There are many quiet ways we can and should support democratic groups in the region, by working, for example, with other countries that have recently undergone democratic transitions that may have greater credibility than Washington. ... We should not even think about wanting to roll back recent election results; rather, the emphasis should be on pressuring newly empowered groups to govern responsibly. Islamist parties in Egypt and Palestine have gained popularity in large measure not because of their foreign policy views, but because of their stress on domestic social welfare issues like education, health, and jobs, and their stand against corruption. Fine, let them deliver; and if they don't or turn out to be corrupt themselves, they will face vulnerabilities of their own not far down the road.
These arguments essentially say that while America can win the military struggle in Iraq it can never win the political struggle. The reasons may vary. Maybe "Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable"; maybe the country "lacks a Washington, a Madison, a Marshall"; or maybe it plain "doesn't want it" -- some form of democracy that is. But whatever the cause, so the argument goes, any success in the military field is negated by the "fact" that the political battle is unwinnable. Therefore the campaign as a whole must fail.
Of course the argument is valid only if the US in fact loses the political struggle. If the US wins the political struggle in some meaningful sense then the whole syllogism falls apart. Because the entire issue pivots on an empirical question it's important to examine just what US policymakers are trying to achieve in current negotiations to form an Iraqi unity government. David Ignatius describes the details in a Washington Post article. It is incorrect, Ignatius begins, to think that simply because the final deals have not yet been done that nothing in the way of negotiations has been achieved.
But it would be folly if American impatience torpedoed the slow but real progress Iraqi leaders are making toward a government that could step back from the brink of civil war. ... Khalilzad recounted the items that the Iraqi political factions have agreed on in private negotiations over the past month. On Sunday, the leaders signed off on the last of these planks of a government of national unity. The Iraqis have saved the hardest issue for last -- the names of the politicians who will hold the top jobs. That bitter fight will play out over the next several weeks. ... given where Iraq was six months ago -- when Sunni and Shiite leaders were barely talking -- their agreement on the framework for a unity government is important. These negotiations may not succeed, but they are not a fairy-tale fantasy, as some critics argue. "All the elements of the deal are there, up in the air, and they could come down and click into place," Kurdish leader Barham Salih told me by telephone from Iraq. "We have come to the real crunch."
What is the endpoint? Ever since Saddam's fall Iraq has inexorably moved toward a state consisting of practically independent autonomous regions held loosely together by an federal government with strictly delimited authority. The endpoint is described in the Iraqi Constitution, which according to one commentator was designed "to attribute as few powers as possible to the federal government, rendering it almost toothless in relation to the regional governments". The framers of the Iraqi constitution consciously modeled their charter after such European countries as Belgium and Spain: countries with strong autonomous regions because this is the result they wanted to achieve. The Iraqi Federal government retains power only over "foreign policy and diplomatic representation; foreign sovereign economic and trade policy; fiscal and customs policy, and commercial policy across regional and governorate boundaries in Iraq". And the autonomous regions have extensive power to raise their own security forces which are designed to become national armies in all but name.
So why not split directly into three independent countries? Why bother with forming a Unity Government and later a Federal government? The real force driving the formation of a Unity Government is not some desire to satisfy an American obsession with spreading democracy so much as the need to come to agreements over oil and security. All the ethnic groups in Iraq want to share in the oil revenues. The Sunni need a share in oil revenues of which they have none themselves; while the Kurds and Shi'a need to agree how to tranship and manage the oil resources in their areas. (The Council on Foreign Relations and the DLC describe the basic areas of dispute over how the oil resource will be managed and shared.) Without a negotiated settlement under a Unity Government, the Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds would have to fight for territory and oil resources. It is better to conclude a series of agreements to be administered by a Unity Government than escort every barrel of oil by force of arms to the market.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that the key destabilizing element in Iraq is precisely the fact that the Sunnis have not yet formed their own autonomous region. It argues that "whether it [the political transformation] will lead to a catastrophic descent into greater violence or even ethnic cleansing, or to a managed transformation into a loose federation of regions enjoying extreme autonomy, depends on whether it becomes possible for Sunni Arabs to form their own region, as Kurds already have and Shias are bound to do once the constitution is in effect. The central thrust of U.S. policy in Iraq must now be to help Sunnis organize an autonomous region and to convince Shias and Kurds that it is in their interest to make this possible." It is ironic that the road to peace should consist of two parts: demonstrating the military impossibility of the Sunnis recovering their overlordship of Iraq while ensuring they can live in peace within new and secure borders. (Baghdad is a special problem because it has such a mixed population).
Therefore the political negotiations David Ignatius describes are really a series of deals among the different sectarian groups to allow an orderly evolution from a Sunni-dominated, Saddam-era state into the Federal state envisioned in the Iraqi Constitution. Of equal importance to the deals themselves are the arrangements to guarantee the deals are kept. For this reason the duration of United States presence and the control over the Iraqi security forces, especially the Army, has acquired crucial importance. Now having reviewed the context, let's return to David Ignatius' narrative:
Here's the framework for the unity government, as outlined by Khalilzad, who has attended nearly all of the meetings. First, the broad strokes: The Sunni leaders have accepted that the new government will operate under the Iraqi constitution and that it will be based on the results of last December's election, both of which reflect the reality that the Shiites are Iraq's largest religious group. The Shiites, in turn, have agreed that the new government will be guided by consensus among all the factions. And they have agreed to checks that will, in theory, prevent the key security ministries from being hijacked by Shiite militia groups.
To implement this consensual approach, the Iraqi factions agreed on two bodies that weren't mentioned in the constitution. They endorsed a 19-member consultative national security council, which represents all the political factions. And they agreed on a ministerial security council, which will have the Sunni deputy prime minister as its deputy chairman. Shiite leaders have tentatively agreed that the defense minister will be a Sunni. And for the key job of interior minister, the dominant Shiite faction, known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, appears ready to accept the replacement of one of its members by an independent Shiite, perhaps Qasim Dawood, a man acceptable to most Sunni leaders.
The key thing that jumps out of these paragraphs is that the Sunni leaders appear to have accepted, in principle at least, that they are no longer dominant; simply one of the parties in Iraq. This suggests they have signed on to the Iraqi constitutional roadmap in theory. But every party still has grave reservations over whether the others can be trusted. That is why the rest of the package consists of a series of checks and balances to ensure that no one group controls the security forces, and prevents their use without the consensus of all parties. (Like the UN Security Council). But quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will make sure the rules are followed? The United States, apparently.
But the X-factor in this delicate game is U.S. political support. Khalilzad could fail in his effort to midwife a unity government, and Iraq could spiral into full-blown civil war. But it would be crazy for an impatient America to talk itself into defeat and pull the plug prematurely. As Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, remarked this week: "America came to Iraq uninvited. You should not leave uninvited."
This is a recognition of the fact that only the United States can make the checks and balances stick, which alone will permit an orderly evolution of the Iraqi state to its desired Federal configuration. Each sectarian group is apparently prepared (the Sunnis appear to have accepted the principle) to begin a withdrawal into its autonomous region, leaving behind a Federal government to administer what amounts to a treaty between the regions, trusting that the US will prevent the devolution from becoming a rout. In summary, the short-term political task facing the US consists of brokering a series of deals between the sectarian groups which will allow a legal transition from the Saddam era to the state described in the Iraqi constitution; the longer-term task consists of guaranteeing that those deals are kept by parties who may be tempted to cheat.
In the end, George Will, Bill Buckley and Francis Fukuyama may well be right in saying that the peoples of Iraq have no desire to agree to anything but to hate one another. But they are not necessarily right. There is nothing in the situation that forbids the achievement of the vision described in the Iraqi constitution. There is nothing that guarantees it either. Success will depend, in my opinion at least, not upon grand political principles, but on the skill of the Americans and Iraqis who are striving for a political solution. Is it difficult? Yes. Is it impossible? No.