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Reading Is Fundamental
Shaping Iraq's new constitution, safeguarding U.S. interests.


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“We have no eternal allies,” Lord Palmerston famously observed, “and we have no perpetual enemies.” “Our interests are eternal and perpetual,” Britain’s 19th-century foreign secretary added, “and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

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As Americans pause to celebrate another wartime Thanksgiving, Palmerston’s adage puts in proper context some recent expressions of apparent Iraqi ingratitude for American sacrifices in liberating Iraq. After a particularly grim month of mounting U.S. losses, many Americans were no doubt puzzled–if not angered–by the unbecoming glee with which their handpicked Iraqi political leaders celebrated the one-sided November 15 deal struck between the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC).

Under this agreement, the U.S. will surrender its present rights as occupying power under international law to a fully sovereign Iraqi provisional government on July 1, 2004. Just one implication of this accelerated transfer of power is the need to agree beforehand on the terms under which U.S. forces will remain in Iraq as “invited guests.’”

“If we need them, we will ask them to stay,” said Jalal Talabani, a Sunni Kurd holding the IGC’s rotating presidency this month. “If not, we will respectfully say: ‘Bye-bye, dear friends, we are grateful to you for what you have done.”

Bye-bye, dear friends.

It would be a serious error to dismiss Talabani’s remarks as merely an offhand expression of the jubilation he claims that all Iraqis now feel. “This is a feast for the Iraqi people,” Talabani boasted. “This is what the Iraqi people were dreaming to have.” Now Talabani knows full well that most Iraqis couldn’t name more than a couple of their appointed and hitherto invisible political leaders; and that most Iraqis are far too preoccupied with making ends meet even to notice–much less applaud–the latest tactical success of their political class.

Nor is Talabani himself likely to have been carried away by the euphoria of the moment. He is an exceedingly hard-bitten old warhorse whose every word is weighed and measured; and whose whole life has been devoted to fighting all comers–Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians, Turks, and fellow Kurds alike–to win independence for Kurdistan, a nation without a state. Translated into the more familiar idiom of interest, this is Talabani’s message to his erstwhile U.S. allies: Deliver genuine federalism for the Kurds, or all bets are off. And Kurdish independence is back on the table.

Welcome to Iraq, where the bazaar never closes. Talabani’s admonition invites reflection on Iraqi wants and American needs, as well as the on proper relation between ends and means in shaping U.S. policy on Iraq.

What’s ultimately at stake is the establishment of a more decent and democratic Iraq at peace within itself and with its neighbors. That’s what the U.S. seeks to secure at the cost of its ongoing expenditure of blood, treasure, and prestige. If Free Iraq serves as a model for neighboring states, so much the better, but the replacement of Saddam’s gangster regime is in itself an incalculable benefit for Iraqis and Americans alike. But only finishing the job by building a properly limited constitutional state and a more decent society will begin to redeem American and Iraqi sacrifices.

Few Iraqis need much convincing of the virtues of limited government after suffering the vices of unlimited tyranny. But there’s no consensus for how Iraq’s principal religious and ethnic groups–chiefly Shiite and Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds (who belong to both Muslim traditions)–will order their common life as Iraqis. Each group rightly fears domination by the others, based on unhappy experience; and none trusts the others to exercise self-restraint.

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the proper U.S. role in this ongoing power struggle is not that of impartial referee or disinterested bystander. Vital U.S. national-security interests are directly threatened by Shiite overreaching, Sunni obstruction, or Kurdish separatism–any one of which could easily provoke civil war and anarchy, leaving Iraq vulnerable to hostile and predatory neighbors. In the absence of any local traditions of compromise or collaboration, the institutional safeguards contained in Iraq’s interim and permanent constitutions must bear the weight of political transition. Yet these safeguards will surely fail unless supported by a solid political consensus that is as yet unforged. Any such consensus depends in turn on Iraq’s untested political leaders making tough compromises–and making clear to their respective constituencies that the new Iraq will not be run for their exclusive benefit.

Getting these constitutional arrangements right will go a long way toward determining whether Free Iraq succeeds or joins the ranks of failed states. The right arrangements for a properly limited state will include limitations governing three sets of relationships: between the citizen and the state (individual rights); within the state itself (separation of powers and checks and balances); and between the center and the regions (federalism). Without these institutional safeguards, Iraq will lack even a fighting chance to develop a political culture in which differences are resolved without bloodshed.

These considerations help clarify the vital and legitimate U.S. interest in Iraq’s emerging structures of governance. It is most emphatically not a matter of imposing uniquely American values, standards, or institutions; and still less one of setting up a puppet state, an expedient that is both unworkable in practice and unworthy in principle of a great republic.

Immediately at issue is how best to add shape and substance to the pending agreements on political transition and security outlined in the November 15 “Agreement on Political Process” between the CPA and the IGC. Both are what lawyers call agreements to agree, setting broad parameters without supplying essential details. One calls for agreement by February 28 on a “Fundamental Law”–or interim constitution–with these four elements: a “bill of rights”; a “federal arrangement for Iraq”; judicial independence and judicial review; and “civilian political control over Iraqi armed and security forces.” The other sets a March 31 deadline for a status-of-forces agreement (SOFA, in diplomatic parlance), as well as related agreements on rules of engagement, with each coalition partner with military forces in Iraq.

In the case of the pending agreement on the Fundamental Law, it’s imperative that the U.S. flesh out the basic individual rights and institutional structures outlined in the November 15 deal. On the one hand, this means at a minimum incorporating (if only by explicit reference) the full set of civil and political rights contained in the relevant international instruments collectively known as the International Bill of Human Rights. On the other hand, what’s needed are workable structures and effective operating procedures set forth in adequate detail.

Yet this approach is doomed to failure if the CPA continues to misread the vital religious dynamics of Iraq society. In today’s Washington Post, Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports in detail (“How Cleric Trumped U.S Plan for Iraq”) how senior U.S. officials failed to grasp the clear implications of Ayatollah Sistani’s June fatwa mandating direct elections as the sole legitimate means of choosing delegates for an Iraqi constitutional convention. These same officials–mainly State Department experts–compounded their initial misjudgment by clumsy and predictably futile efforts to circumvent Sistani’s edict, resulting in political paralysis until the November 15 policy U-turn. According to the Post, “American political officers were too isolated to grasp the power of the edict,” which has been discussed in detail on NRO over the past three months (see here and here, for instance). Whether this unacceptably steep learning curve persists remains to be seen, but it plainly reflects State’s institutional unwillingness and inability to come to grips with religious issues, not least those with clear political dimensions bearing on vital U.S. interests.

Also needed is rather more skill–and sharper elbows–than were in evidence when the CPA unwisely surrendered all formal leverage over the shape and substance of Iraq’s permanent constitution. The November 15 deal covers only the interim constitution; its provisions do not carry over into the permanent constitution that will be drafted by delegates elected in March, 2005. That means that the interim constitution’s make-or-break provisions must develop constituencies which insist on their incorporation in the permanent constitution. That’s most unlikely to happen without the U.S. identifying and actively supporting its natural allies within Iraq’s various religious, ethnic, and political groups.

“We have more levers than you think, and maybe more than the Iraqis think.” That’s how one unnamed senior White House official was reported as spinning the relative bargaining strength of the U.S. in the New York Times on November 16, one day after this month’s one-sided agreement. One such lever comes in the form of second thoughts on the part of many IGC members about that very agreement, which calls for the simultaneous dissolution of the IGC and CPA and their replacement by Iraq’s new provisional government and a U.S. embassy on July 1.

Now it happens that many IGC members, who are mainly political neophytes lacking any popular following in Iraq, are most anxious to preserve their influence and prerogatives, according to yesterday’s New York Times. Iyad Alawi, a Shiite IGC member, had this to say for his colleagues: “It’s not realistic to just say goodbye to them. It’s not fair to ask them to operate and ratify things and then just dismiss them.” Whether realistic or fair, that’s the deal the IGC signed on to; and it would be folly to revisit that deal except in the context of a comprehensive agreement that satisfies pressing U.S. concerns on all outstanding issues.

Bear in mind that in political negotiations, everything’s ultimately related to everything else; and nothing’s properly settled until everything’s settled. That’s the approach the U.S. needs to take, bolstered by the leverage that $20 billion in reconstruction funds provides. There’s no lack of leverage; what’s needed is proper application and proper focus on vital U.S. interests–not a piecemeal approach to outstanding issues.

In other circumstances, this is precisely the approach that Jalal Talabani himself would recommend. Hard-headed calculations of national interest always serve as a more certain and prudent guide than misplaced reliance on the gratitude of others for yesterday’s good deeds–such as standing between the Kurds and extinction for the past twelve years.

Gratitude properly belongs in an altogether different sphere from the Hobbesian world of sovereign states. One such place is around dinner tables this Thanksgiving when most Americans gather as families and give thanks to God for their blessings. Hopefully many will also remember to ask God’s blessings for American men and women in uniform fighting a just and necessary war on our behalf.

John F. Cullinan, an expert in human rights and international law, formerly served as a senior foreign-policy adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops.



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