Getting Ready to Leave Iraq

It took barely 24 hours for the spirit of celebration over the fact that the Iraqi Governing Council’s unanimous approval of a relatively liberal – at least on paper – interim constitution to be overshadowed by a series of attacks and explosions that left about 280 Iraqi Shiites dead on the festival of Ashoura, the holiest day of the Shiite calendar. The two events highlight the small semblance of hope and the pitfalls ahead as the United States tries to turn some amount of sovereignty over to Iraqis on June 30.

The constitution approved over the weekend after intensive negotiations is in many ways a framework for the most liberal government in the Middle East. It includes the rights to free speech and assembly, the free exercise of religion, habeas corpus, the right to a fair and open trial, protection for the rights of women and civilian control of the military.

Perhaps most impressively, all sides – Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen and others – agreed to compromise in the interests of putting a framework in place. The agreed that Islam would be “a source” rather than “the source” of future legislation. However, as Freedom House’s Nina Shea has pointed out, the constitution contains a clause that could be troublesome. It says no law may contradict “the universally agreed upon tenets of Islam.”

The trouble is, there is little resembling universal agreement on just what the tenets of Islam are. Nina Shea’s concern, that this provision “leaves open the prospect that unelected clerics will hold veto power over the legislature, as in Iran, or that judges will strike down extensive portions of statutory law because it does not conform to their notions of Islam,” might be overblown. After all, in the United States unelected judges strike down statutory law and hold veto power over legislatures in the name of the U.S. Constitution, and while some of their decisions are dubious, on balance the system probably does more to protect individual rights than to overrun them.


I talked to James Dobbins, Director of the Rand Corporation’s International Security and Defense Policy Center, veteran of a long State Department career, most recently as President Bush’s special envoy in Afghanistan. He said the act of pushing through the constitution was “an impressive feat of diplomacy” by US civilian administrator Paul Bremer and British emissary Jeremy Greenstock.

As Mr. Dobbins acknowledged, however, the constitution postpones most of the toughest issues – the status of various militias, notably the Kurdish, what authority the central government will ultimately have, the status of the oil-rich region around Kirkuk the Kurds want to control. But he argued that the IGC lacks the legitimacy to tackle these issues anyway, and it is more appropriate for the Iraqis themselves, after US supervision has ended, to resolve these and other issues.

Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, is less impressed. “The European countries left several African and Asian countries with impressive constitutions when colonial power ended,” he reminded me. “In most cases these were ineffective barriers to dictatorship.”

The exercise should serve as a reminder that it takes more than words on paper to create a democracy – and that, just perhaps, democracy as such is not what is important in Iraq and other countries. Beyond having some sort of civil society in place – a network of associations and loyalties that have little or nothing to do with politics or governance – the most important thing in an ethnically and religiously divided place like Iraq (whose borders are an artifact of British colonialism rather than natural or indigenous development) is a central government with little or no power to oppress minorities.

Insofar as democracy refers to a process of holding elections that give the people the impression that they are participating in their governance, it doesn’t address, in and of itself, the issue of how much power a central government has. There can be liberal – in the sense of leaving people alone except for a few key matters – democracies and despotic democracies.

The danger in Iraq is that the Shiites, who were oppressed most brutally under Saddam and constitute a majority of 60 to 65 percent, will decide that the power an election might eventually confer on them will decide it gives them a license to get some of their own back against the Sunnis, who for the most part supported the thugs who did the oppressing. This might not happen right away – for the most part the Shiites have been on fairly good behavior, and even the demonstrations called by Ayatollah Sistani to demand elections more quickly than proconsul Bremer wanted them were peaceful and have arguably had a constructive outcome so far. But power is always tempting, and Iraq’s Shiites have reason to feel aggrieved.

I don’t know if it is possible to create a system in Iraq where the central government is relatively powerless – powerless enough that it is hardly worth while for factions to fight over it in hopes of gaining the ability to lend a patina of legitimacy to their desire to lord it over others. That’s not the model most of the floating crap game of diplomats and hangers-on the media are pleased to call the “international community” prefer or even know very much about.

The model most Western diplomats view as ideal involves a fairly strong centralized state. That’s probably the last thing Iraq needs; indeed, it might never take root in the sands of the Middle East. If it did, we might have more to fear than a few car bombings. Constant struggles to control the levers of power and use them against one’s enemies is hardly the way to civil peace and prosperity.

The challenge is to let the Iraqis develop a model that comports with their own customs and traditions and still leaves minorities within a geographic area with enough freedom to pursue their lives unmolested so long as they don’t transgress the rights of others. I don’t know if it can be done. A Western-style Bill of Rights on paper is certainly no guarantee.

One may hope that the spirit of compromise that led to the constitution (under a good deal of pressure from diplomats who have a military occupation to back them up, to be sure) demonstrated an understanding that tolerance and compromise are necessary in any polity. But it is difficult to know, and the outcome will be uncertain for years. Seeing it as a triumph of Western diplomacy suggests a certain arrogance that is more part of the problem than part of the solution.


Perhaps the most hopeful sign right now is that the Americans still seem determined to end the civilian phase of the occupation somewhere close to the admittedly arbitrary deadline – but then any deadline is bound to be somewhat arbitrary – of June 30. Of course, the plan is still to leave more than 100,000 US troops in Iraq after putative sovereignty has been transferred to something resembling an Iraqi regime. But the administration has held to the deadline with remarkable consistency.

Sure, the deadline may have more to do with the US election than with any desire to abjure imperial ambitions and leave the region to those whose lives and roots are there. Dubya wants to be able to say, whether it’s true or not, that we have “liberated” Iraq and the country is well on its way to democratic independence rather than having to cope with what are bound to be inevitable attacks as the US election date nears. Without the US election, the handover of titular sovereignty would almost certainly have been extended, perhaps indefinitely, because there would always be incidents supporting the proposition that the Iraqis are just not quite ready yet to assume full responsibility for their own affairs yet.

US troops will stay, which in my view is a mistake. But the US always seems to leave troops in other countries after a conflict – and the acquisition of US bases in Iraq rather than in increasingly volatile Saudi Arabia might have been the real purpose of the war in the first place. But Japan, Germany and South Korea are relatively independent despite the presence of US troops since the ends of the wars in those countries. We will know the US is serious about giving up some of the delusions of empire when they start bringing some of those troops home (and not relocating them to other countries), but unfortunately I don’t expect that to happen very soon. I certainly don’t expect Sen. Kerry to raise the issue in any kind of substantive way.

Still, leaving troops in Iraq is less worse than maintaining a semipermanent civilian occupation. And perhaps the bloody aftermath of the military aspect of the war just might have dampened enthusiasm for adventures Iran, Syrian and beyond.

It is still unclear as of this writing who carried out the attacks in Baghdad, Karbala and the Kurdish city of Mosul – perhaps ominously coordinated with a deadly attack on Shiites in Pakistan – or whether they were a response to the constitution or to the Shiite festival, the work of al Qaida or other groups, or as coordinated as they appeared. But they reflect the fact, as Mr. Dobbins said, that “we have failed to establish a secure environment in Iraq, without which anything else we do will ultimately be irrelevant.” We didn’t go into Iraq to protect US soldiers but Iraqi democrats, he noted, and so far we have not succeeded.

Unfortunately, as Mr. Carpenter put it, “Democracy and political stability are not like cake mixes to which you just add eggs and water.” Iraq may have the makings of a civil society with an understanding of the need for mutual tolerance and restraint, but it has little experience with democratic institutions. These can’t be built easily when people are in constant fear and uncertainty. And time is running out.

The sooner we end the occupation the better.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).