Interval of Uncertainty

It is hardly impossible, but it won’t be easy. Iraqis who don’t want their country to be either torn apart by continuing insurgent violence or occupied permanently by U.S. military forces have a few weeks to get their act together.

To be sure, despite the fact that he is suffering a bad bout of the second-term blues most American presidents who made it to a second term have endured, even if he gets the Iraqis to put something reasonably credible together in a way that could give him a chance to declare victory and get out, President Bush might not take the opportunity. Like many people who are smarter than their enemies give them credit for but still know at some deep-down level that they are second-raters – e.g., Poppy was a baseball star at Yale, Dubya was a cheerleader, and it’s doubtful his unconscious has forgotten – this president is an extraordinarily stubborn soul.

Even if he had the sense to seize an opportunity to cut the country’s losses in Iraq, Dubya might have trouble doing so, unless the level of discontent over the war rises to higher levels of intensity than is the case now and that discontent forces the issue. His troubles might be so serious that he is virtually incapable of taking decisions and carrying them out.

Second-Term Blues

Three presidents during the 20th century – well four, if you count Wilson, who was too sick to govern but also had political problems symbolized by the failure of the League of Nations to win Senate approval – suffered catastrophic second terms. Truman, Johnson, and Nixon all had foreign policy difficulties that contributed (perhaps peripherally in Nixon’s case) to problems so severe that while two remained in office, they essentially lost the ability to govern. In Truman’s and Johnson’s case, it was wars that the general public came to view as unsatisfactory, entanglements entered into with unrealistic goals.

Reagan and Clinton also had troubled second terms, but they never lost their essential bases of support. With the Harriet Miers nomination, George W. is in serious jeopardy of losing his. It might not look like it for a while. Bolstered by the soft bigotry of low expectations, Harriet just might do well enough in the Senate hearings to make most Americans feel a little less uncomfortable, and she could well win confirmation.

But the conservative base is split, and those who have expressed discontent are angry. To be fair to poor Harriet – although there’s no way anyone would have considered nominating her who wasn’t her personal friend – this is not all her fault. Discontent with Bush, who has increased spending as dramatically – discretionary domestic spending, leaving aside the war – as LBJ in his palmiest Great Society period and further federalized education, has been growing among conservatives for several years. Some have chosen to remain personally loyal, but those who take conservative principles with even a modest amount of seriousness have not been happy for some time.

This is a White House that doesn’t take disloyalty lightly, so once the Miers situation is settled one way or another, there will undoubtedly be moves to retaliate against conservatives and Republicans who were unacceptably vehement about the nomination. But the president might just pull the levers that are supposed to bring on punishment – especially if Karl Rove isn’t around – and find out they’re not connected to anything that frightens the outspoken critics.

Unfortunately, conservative discontent is unlikely to be an impetus to a sensible withdrawal from Iraq. In fact, the perception could be that beginning a withdrawal would make conservatives – unless they become more disillusioned with the war than I suspect will be the case – even angrier. Pressure for withdrawal might have to come from elsewhere and be more powerful than it has been so far.

What Iraqis Control

Iraqi political operators can’t control President Bush’s decision-making process, nor can they control how serious his domestic political troubles will be. But they just might have the moxie to put together a credible enough semblance of self-governance to make Bush and his preferences less relevant, even if a significant number of U.S. troops remain. In the wake of the vote on the draft constitution last Saturday, the situation looks remarkably fluid.

At first, things looked fairly peachy to those like me who were rooting for something that could be spun as success. The election came off with little violence, especially compared to recent weeks. Although the vote count is still not complete as of this writing, preliminary estimates were that the draft constitution would pass, that Sunnis who wanted to see it fail had not amassed the necessary two-thirds "no" vote in three provinces (originally demanded by the Kurds as a safety valve, ironically enough) to reject it, although two predominantly Sunni provinces did reject it. But a much larger number of Sunnis participated than did so in January, and that could be seen as evidence that quite a few of them are ready to wage their battles through the ballot box rather than with bombs and bullets.

To be sure, some signs were ominous. Sunnis (perhaps 20 percent of the population) voted almost unanimously to reject the constitution, while Shi’ites (around 60 percent) voted almost unanimously to approve it. This kind of religious bloc solidarity doesn’t bode well for compromise, or for the development someday of political groups that transcend the Sunni-Shi’ite divide.

Then came allegations of vote fraud, triggered by the apparent fact that in some areas there were more votes for the constitution than there were registered voters. The Iraqi electoral officials have vowed to look into this. However it is decided, it doesn’t bode well for the perceived legitimacy of whatever semblance of governance emerges from the tangle.

There is also the possibility that the lesson Sunnis will take from this electioneering exercise is that in the new Iraq they are destined to be a permanent minority, unable to affect national policies seriously. The fact that none of Iraq’s known oil deposits are in predominantly Sunni areas but are either in the Kurdish north or the Shi’ite south could well reinforce this impression of impending political powerlessness. Whether that sense will lead an increasing number of Sunnis to decide that their best hope lies in insurgent violence rather than political maneuvering will be a development to watch.

Shi’ite Forbearance

Anything resembling the kind of success that would permit a U.S. troop withdrawal that can be spun positively rather than looking like an abject defeat will thus depend to a great extent on Shi’ite forbearance. Experts speak of the shape of Iraqi federalism, the allocation of oil revenues, the allocation of power between a central government and local regions, and other issues relating to institutions. In an ideal world, this might have been settled within the constitution, but because of last-minute changes designed to win more votes, this is a provisional constitution (if approved), so such decisions are yet to be made and perhaps implemented.

For Sunnis, it boils down not to institutions, though these are important enough, but to trust. Can they trust the Shi’ites, once they are really running things, as seems likely, not to use their power to punish or oppress the Sunnis, or institute policies that discriminate against them too egregiously? If they don’t face serious persecution, they might be able to live with any number of institutional arrangements. If they feel persecuted seriously, no institutional arrangement is likely to satisfy them.

For now, it is probably in the Shi’ites’ interest not to appear too overbearing. U.S. withdrawal is more likely if things seem to be working out and few outrageous events are occurring. After all these years as the persecuted majority in Iraq, many Shi’ites are eager to be ruling in fact as well as in name, not as a provisional force subject to U.S. veto.

But the bitterness between Shi’ites and Sunnis runs deep, and Shi’ite grievances are real. Even if leaders like Ayatollah Sistani prefer forbearance, it might not be possible to contain Shi’ite anger effectively. Something resembling a civil war could easily break out, all complicated by what is likely to be a continuing insurgency and the presence of Iran on the border, already influential among many Iraqi Shi’ites and seeking more influence and perhaps even de facto control. Iranian influence in the southern region would make Saudi Arabia and Kuwait exceptionally nervous.

The Saddam Factor

It’s not my country, and it’s hardly my place to decide, but it seems to me that the impending trial of Saddam Hussein could complicate things rather than settling them down. The hope, of course, is that bringing Saddam to something resembling rough justice will prove a cathartic event for Iraqis who suffered under his thuggery, inducing a focus on a future less repressive and fear-ridden.

To be sure, despite criticism from human rights groups – defendants and attorneys are not allowed to sit together, the research behind the first prosecution charges (which conveniently involve a massacre before the U.S. became Iraq’s de facto ally in the 1980s war with Iran and winked and nodded at the use of poison gas and the like) is shaky, the trial looks more like victor’s justice than impartial justice – the trial has the potential to put a sheen of legitimacy on the governmental structure that emerges from the constitutional process.

But pitfalls abound. Despite being a thoroughly despicable human being, Saddam had some reserves of competence, bravado, ability, and even charisma. Even though fear was a huge factor, without them he could not have ruled as long as he did.

In his first appearance, Saddam served notice that he is likely to use his cunning to undermine the perceived legitimacy of the proceeding and, as a posting on a Web site in the name of the Ba’ath Party put it, "prosecute, expose, and convict American imperialism and the vicious Zionist coalition." He just might have some success, even winning sympathy and support in some sectors of Iraqi society.

Saddam’s trial is scheduled to resume Nov. 28. The first election under the draft constitution (assuming it is eventually considered ratified) is scheduled for Dec. 15. The trial might be cathartic enough to get Iraqis thinking in terms of a better future and ready to put certain kinds of violence behind them. Or it might be disruptive enough to torpedo the legitimacy of whatever happens Dec. 15, or to inspire more insurgent-related violence.

There’s just a chance Iraqis can muddle through all this and achieve a semblance of stability and relative quietude. But the obstacles are many.

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).