Talking is the Point

BAGHDAD — Everyone’s on tenterhooks today as we wait to see what happens with the Iraqi constitution. Well, everyone in the journalist and NGO communities, the various embassies and the Iraqi government. Your average Iraqi is probably more interested in when the power’s coming back on or if the water will run tonight. The constitution is important, yes, but there is a disconnect between what’s going on out on the streets and what’s happening in the Green Zone that a constitution will do nothing to fix.
In some ways, however, what the constitution says is not so important that it might exist at all. What’s interesting is what the _process_ of drafting the charter says about the Iraqi political process. And what it says has some good points and bad ones.
On the one hand, there is no doubt there is a dialogue going on among people in a country where agreement usually comes with the not-so-subtle nudging of a Kalashnikov in the kidneys. People who might not otherwise talk are engaging with one another. They are the leaders and once they figure out how to talk to one another, perhaps they can learn to talk to the Iraqi people — and then they can lead them.
On the other hand, these same leaders are often the heads of militias and these militias are being used to assassinate political opponents. Everyone’s got their theories as to who killed the two Sunni members of the constitutional panel last month, but everyone i’ve spoken with agrees it was at the hands of a rival militia — either the Shi’ites’ Badr Organization, the Kurdish _pesh merga_ or possibly Ba’athists.
My point is that the _talking_ is the point, not necessarily the constitution. That a political process even exists is a bit of a wonder, and it should be seen as welcome and good news. If a process exists, problems can be addressed, solutions found. The actual form of those solutions is less important than the fact a mechanism to find them is in place.
However, a major weakness of this process is its reliance on the Americans. None of this dialogue would happen naturally without the heavy prodding of the diplomatic community — primarily the Americans and the British. The two senior members of the Coalition are keeping a smoldering civil war from igniting into full-scale open savagery — yes, it can get much worse here — by convincing the Iraqis to keep talking. That’s a huge diplomatic achievement and it’s not highlighted enough.
The Iraqis are still too divided, too suspicious of one another to take the initiative on their own and get and keep the process going. This, I believe, is a bad sign that the American hope to get the Iraqis on their feet militarily, economically and politically is going to be a long time coming. The Americans are going to be _very_ involved here for a long time. After all, they’re not midwifing a political process so much as a political culture.
So, I don’t really care what the Iraqi constitution says. Well, I do, but I care more, however, that it’s easily amendable because what the Iraqis end up with next year, or even next decade, will probably look very different from the document that comes out today, _inshallah_. And that’s OK. The “American Constitution”:, in many areas, bears little resemblance to the original seven Articles.
That’s why the real hard work will come after the drafting of the Iraqi charter. The Iraqis will have the challenge of creating robust, flexible institutions that support democratic dialogue. They need an independent judiciary, for starters, that will enable the settling of the inevitable disputes that will arise over women’s rights, the role of Islam and federalism — all issues that may or may not get kicked down the road with this draft. (We’ll see in a few hours.) They need new leaders, frankly, who are not exiles but people who stayed in Iraq during the Saddam regime. And they need a mechanism to come to terms with the Ba’ath Party and the bloody fingerprints it has left on Iraqi society’s throat. This is an issue that will not go away, despite the best efforts of Ahmed Chalabi and it will have to absorbed into the body politic somehow.
And how will all of this affect the insurgency? Well, to be honest, in the short- to medium-term, it won’t do much. It might keep more Sunni fence-sitters from drifting into the hostile camp, assuming a charter isn’t pushed through by Shi’ites and Kurds over vocal Sunni objections. (That would send the signal that dialogue counts far less than sheer numbers — and why take part in a process that equates demographics with destiny?)
But the hopes that it will be the start of pulling the rug out from under the insurgents is not likely to hold water; the Americans said the elections in January would do that and they didn’t. The lull after the elections was not because ballot boxes sapped support; it was a retooling and rearming period after their election offensive. Then they said the same about the formation of the Ja’afari government — and the insurgency was ready for it. A newly rested and resupplied insurgency has killed more than 4,000 Iraqi civilians and security forces since April 28 when his government was announced. In the same time period, 266 American troops have died.
What usually ends insurgency are two things: time and amnesties. Eventually, insurgencies die out because people get damn tired. This is the 10-12 year span that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld mentioned a couple of weeks ago. And they also end when the existing government, usually with a knife to its throat, offers an amnesty to rebels once all sides reach the point of exhaustion.
My point in all this is not that the nascent political process is pointless — quite the opposite. My point is that it has to continue and be seen as robust enough without constant American stoking if the insurgency is ever going to get tired enough to accept some kind of deal. It has to be seen by Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the insurgency, as a real dialogue and not just a forum where they stand outside with their noses pressed up against the class looking in. Yes, they boycotted the elections in January, and frankly, their current political flaccidity is their own damn fault. But they have to be shown that it’s OK for them to come in an sit down at the table and that they’ll get a fair hearing. Otherwise, Iraq’s Sunnis might just decide to talk to someone who _will_ listen to them: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. We’re already seeing it. Ba’athist cell leaders have are losing foot soldiers to the _jihadis_. Anything that further alienate secular and potentially moderate Sunnis should be ended.
The talking _has_ to continue — and the Iraqis have to be the ones to continue it. President George W. Bush can talk about the training of Iraqi security forces all he wants, but it’s the training of Iraqi politicians that’s even more important. As these guys — for the most part — learn to talk to one another, that’s where the real progress will be made, not on the battlefield. If there is even a sliver of hope that people can be kept talking, then the Americans, the Iraqis and anyone else involved should move heaven and earth to keep the lips moving and sound coming out. The alternative is a civil war that might make Lebanon’s look tame.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

One Comment on “Talking is the Point”

  1. Iraqi Parliament Votes for Delay

    I know I said “I hoped the new Iraqi constitution will be easily amended, but I hope it’s not as easy to amend as the TAL was last night.