Just a Chance

I know it’s more than a bit of a long shot, but I’m hoping beyond hope that the election Saturday in Iraq is something that can at least be viewed as a modest success. The definition of success will have to be far more modest than what our wise leaders might have accepted as success as recently as a few months ago, of course. Perhaps a violence level that is not enough to halt the voting in its tracks and a situation in which it is not utterly certain that Iraq is about to be plunged into open civil war within the next few weeks will have to do.

I think opponents of the war, at least those who are more concerned about cutting U.S. losses than about reveling in Schadenfreude because Bush has been proven wrong yet again, should be hoping and praying for something resembling success. The most recent polls suggest that Bush is in plenty of trouble already, with his approval rating dipping below 40 percent for the first time and the number of people who think the country is heading in the "right direction" below 30 percent for the first time in his presidency.

With the Katrina disaster still ripe in most peoples’ minds, with conservatives deserting him over the Harriet Miers nomination with a vengeance that suggests many have been unhappy for a long time with Big Government Conservatism Bush-league-style, and the Iraq adventure looking more and more like a quagmire, Bush has the second-term blues most recent presidents have suffered in a particularly virulent form – and we’re a year away from the mid-term congressional election. There’s still a chance for some kind of recovery, and Bush could end up a bit like Clinton – in disgrace but with a significant portion of the country still liking him personally and feeling sad about his troubles. But when things start to fall apart for a president everybody knows will be out of office at the end of a term, they tend to fall part quickly and almost irreparably.

As everybody knows, however, this president is uncommonly stubborn, and he may still believe much of his own propaganda. Despite or perhaps because of his other troubles, he is unlikely to start to set a withdrawal or draw-down of U.S. troops in motion unless he can convince himself that something resembling a path toward Iraqi self-governance is underway. So we might do well to hope for something that can at least be spun that way without the whole world bursting out in giggles.

Signs of Something

Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I think I might even detect some signs that Iraqis are actually taking a few halting steps down that path. I suspect that most Iraqis believe the United States will never leave until there are signs of latent stability. So we have seen in the past week some evidence that Iraqi leaders – to some extent prodded by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, to be sure – are undertaking the kind of compromises that just might induce most Iraqis to play the political game rather than the violence game for long enough to see if evidence of stability really does lead to reductions in the U.S. presence.

Khalilzad may have played some constructive role in the short run – as objectionable as it is on many levels for him to be acting as an imperial proconsul rather than the ambassador to a titularly sovereign country. But if the signs I think I see pan out, it will not be due to American wisdom but to the fact that the Iraqis have been ready to govern themselves for a long time but only now have descried the imperative to get their act together. Hoover Institution democracy expert Larry Diamond, who spent time in Iraq trying to promote democracy, argues in his book Squandered Victory that it was a mistake not to hand more authority to a semi-legitimate Iraqi government much earlier in the occupation, that they would have come up with something recognized as more legitimate than the Bremer-led occupation government or its spawn have ever been.

I suspect they are ready now. If the security situation is not completely out of control in the time before the vote on the draft constitution, they will put something together that works for them and increasingly pressure the United States to leave. Since there’s little doubt that the United States presence in Iraq is an important contributing factor to the virulence of the insurgency, and the evidence is mounting that the longer U.S. troops stay in Iraq the less the genuine national interest (assuming there is such a thing) is served, the United States would be wise to oblige.

With all his other troubles, even Bush might be inclined to agree – if he can say, with even a remote bit of credibility, that his efforts led to a sea-change in Iraqi governance that might, just might, have a beneficial effect on the rest of the Middle East, and allowed him to focus on other aspects of the Sacred War on Terror.

Toward Compromise

What signs are there that Iraqis are more prepared to handle their own affairs? To be sure, the constitution, in part because of U.S. insistence on the specific timetable the administration rejects when asked about troop withdrawal, is an imperfect document that doesn’t quite provide the strong likelihood of a satisfactory solution to the built-in ethnic and religious tensions of an Iraq with its present borders. What seems hopeful is an increasing willingness, perhaps even desire, to seek compromises and tweaks if they hold out some hope of provoking rather than dampening potential conflict.

Consider the events of the last couple of weeks.

In the first week of October, the national assembly passed some last-minute changes in the definition of "voter" that seemed to seriously compromise potential Sunni voting strength. It had all the appearances of an underhanded maneuver to ensure that the unlikely – that Sunnis who opposed the constitution would be able to muster the two-thirds "no" votes in three different provinces required to reject the document – would become outright impossible.

Sunnis, along with the UN and the U.S., rightfully denounced this maneuver. Within a couple of days the assembly rescinded it.

By early this week, far from trying to find a new way to stifle the Sunnis, the Kurd-Shi’ite dominated provisional government was searching for ways to increase their participation. A deal was reached whereby the constitution could be changed early next year, by a committee specifically constituted for the purpose. It was done specifically to encourage more Sunnis to vote (in favor, of course), by letting them know the problems everyone acknowledges exist in the constitution can at least be addressed quickly, by a panel on which Sunnis should have more representation than they do in the current government.

Nishan Jabouri, a Sunni Arab who opposed the previous draft and was involved in the negotiation, was downright effusive. "Before now, I felt like I am losing," he told the Washington Post. "We are losing our power, we are losing our country, and I am like a foreigner living here. Now everything has changed. This constitution, I think any Arab Sunni can support it."

I know, I know. It could all be a cynical maneuver with Nishan Jabouri receiving some wink-and-nod promises in exchange for becoming a Judas to the Sunnis. Even if it is, however, it’s a deal designed to draw Sunnis into the political process. What Sunnis need is reassurance that once they are certified by electoral processes as a permanent minority that they won’t be persecuted – as the Sunni-dominated Saddam government persecuted both Kurds and Shi’ites in the past. Written constitutional provisions can be helpful here, but perhaps more important is an assessment of whether the Shi’ites and Kurds plan to extract a collective eye-for-eye.

The fact that the current political establishment is now reaching out to the Sunnis is at least a hint that they understand they will be a factor in the future and would be better dealt with by keeping them close than by planning to oppress them. Despite what some would consider justification to desire payback, surely some Shi’ites believe that social peace is preferable to attempts at revenge that feed a cycle of violence.

I could be wrong, of course. Passage of the constitution, as many have predicted, could unleash more violence rather than begin to quell it. But there are at least some slivers of evidence that some prominent Iraqis want to handle whatever problems and complications result from the decision made Saturday themselves, rather than having the Americans do it for them.

Those of us who seek an early withdrawal from Iraq might do well to hope the movement bears fruit in increasing Iraqi independence, self-governance, and control of the insurgency and other forms of violence.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).