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August 31, 2005

A Fire In The Hearts Of Men

Here we go again.

It's time for the Pessimism Parade: that priceless pageant of histrionics, hand-wringing and overwrought predictions of disaster courtesy of the same folks who warned us Saddam would use those non-existent WMDs against us if we deposed him. Who said Operation Iraqi Freedom would be a bloodbath and the Arab Street would rise against us in solidarity with their Persian brethren.

You may recall they tried to warn us about the Afghani elections. The tiny mountainous nation was going to explode in a maelstrom of firebombings and riots...

It didn't.

They wept great tears of frustration when we didn't heed their dire predictions in January. Couldn't we see that disaster was just around the corner? Back then I predicted that just as the citizens of San Salvador did in 1982, the Iraqis would brave the wrath of the insurgents to get to the polls.

And they did: magnificently.

Now that the Iraqis have reached another milestone on the journey to democracy, the naysayers are out in full force again:

"A formula for civil war," says Senator Joe Biden. He's referring to the Sunni rejection of the new Iraq constitution, and it's always possible that this time he'll be right. Then again, he and many others also predicted disaster before January's wildly successful Iraq elections. "It's going to be ugly," the Delaware Democrat said at the time.

So here's a radical thought: How about letting Iraqis debate and vote on their new national charter before we Americans summarily denounce it as a failure?

As usual, the media and critics of the administration have kept the focus on the Sunnis, who comprise only 20% of Iraq's population, as though they were the most important - indeed the only factor - to be considered in the formation of the new Iraqi government. And there is a method in their madness.

Since September 11th, the President's critics have sought to paint him as recklesslessly and unilaterally running roughshod over all opposition. Just how a leader who puts together a Coalition of 30 nations can be said to be acting unilaterally, recklessly, and without allies is never quite explained, unless the other 29 democratic nations who have joined with us in this venture are likewise unilateral, friendless, and reckless. The secret to this tactic lies in arbitrarily redefining words like "unilateral". In the former case, unilateral means, "without the permission of France and Germany".

In like fashion, the administration's foes seek to redefine the meaning of success as it applies to the establishment of democratic governance in Iraq. Under normal circumstances, one might reasonably see success in the drafting and ratification of a Constitution that contains protections for women and minority populations, the free exercise of religion, and some separation of church and state. And indeed, the draft of the Iraqi Constitution appears to do all of those things.

But there is a fly in the proverbial ointment. The Sunnis are not happy. This is hardly surprising. Democratic republics are normally composed of competing factions who hold opposing views. Since not all factions are equally represented and most opposing views are, by nature, mutually exclusive a binary choice is presented to voters. One either favors or opposes kitten bouncing laws, for instance. In the end, the faction with the most persuasive case and the most voters willing to cast a favorable vote (note: not necessarily the most supporters) will win the day.

The other factions will, of necessity, then form what is known as The Loyal Opposition, or in less positive terms, the disaffected minority. Unless the Sunnis, with their 20% share of the Iraqi population, can make a persuasive case to the general electorate for measures they favor, they are doomed to become a disaffected minority. This is neither a miserable failure on the part of the Bush administration, an indication that democracy cannot work in an Arab nation, nor an indictment of our foreign policy. It is simply a fact of life in representative government. And to maintain that every brown-skinned disaffected minority inevitably picks up the nearest Kalishnakov and starts blasting away when they cannot get a provision written into a draft political document is not only patronizing and cynical, but smacks of the kind of parochialism and Ugly Americanism that Europeans rightly used to look down on us for. It is surprising, therefore, to see this attitude coming from the party of tolerance and diversity.

And whence all this pessimism concerning the Sunnis, anyway? As the WSJ Journal notes, sneering condescension from effete liberals aside, racial and ethnic groups are not necessarily monolithic in their opinions:

For the Sunnis to defeat the constitution they will have to participate in the vote. That's more than they did in January's elections, and by itself represents a commitment to a democratic process that many Americans insist isn't possible in an Arab culture.

It is also by no means clear that the constitution will be rejected by Iraq's voters. The pact must be repudiated by a two-thirds vote in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces. A large Sunni turnout could mean "no" votes in two of Iraq's three predominantly Sunni provinces--Anbar and Sulemaniyah--but is less likely in Nineveh, which has a large Kurdish population. Ratification in the other 15 predominantly Kurdish or Shiite provinces is all but assured.

In the secrecy of the voting booth, many Sunnis may even favor the charter that their ostensible leaders denounce. The constitution's protections are one shield against Shiite religious domination. Super-majority clauses also guarantee Sunni influence in parliament. And Sunni negotiators wrangled key concessions on the de-Baathification Commission, which now can be disbanded by a simple majority vote of the new parliament, rather than the two-thirds stipulated in an earlier draft. (Sunnis dominated Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party.)

Most important, the constitution allocates oil revenues on a per-capita basis, meaning the oil-poor Sunni regions will be net beneficiaries of the oil-rich Kurdish north and Shiite south. All this amounts to the best deal Sunnis can reasonably expect in a new Iraq, and we suspect more than a few of them know it. Many Sunni leaders will acknowledge this privately, but they don't want to say it publicly lest they become targets of assassination from the terrorists who want chaos over any kind of government.

Pejman Yousefzadeh seconds this notion, quoting a Sunni member of the drafting committee:

A Sunni member of the constitutional drafting committee, Mahmoud al-Mashadani, said he favored approving the document. But he added that he feared he could become a target of more militant Sunnis if he were to speak out about it, particularly if the Muslim Scholars Association, an influential Sunni group, were to denounce the charter.

"Who is going to protect me when I'm walking in the streets after that?" he said, adding that he had just heard a Sunni imam denouncing those who supported the constitution as infidels.

Other Sunnis have expressed similar fears, especially after two Sunnis involved in drafting the constitution were assassinated last month.

Two dozen Sunni sheiks in Falluja, west of the capital, said Saturday that more than 5,000 leaflets had been distributed in and around the town in the past two weeks warning people not to vote in the constitutional referendum in October. Although the leaflets did not say those who voted would be killed, that is what the residents believe, the sheiks said.

Of course, if the Sunnis abstain from voting, their influence in the 3 provinces in which they predominate will be much diluted. It is hard to see what Sunni leaders hope to gain from this tactic, unless it is to undermine confidence in the Constitution. But I imagine if enough Iraqis show up on October 15th, it will proceed, with or without Sunni participation. Morover, as John Podhoretz points out, there will have to be some pretty heavy Sunni turnout for the referendum to be defeated:

Iraq has 18 provinces. Sunnis dominate in three of those provinces. In each of those three provinces, the vote will have to be 66.6 percent opposed to the constitution for it to lose. In the privacy of the ballot box, Sunnis may opt for freedom over chaos, for the future rather than the past. After all, one third of Sunnis need do so for the constitution to achieve its historic passage.

What we know about true Sunni attitudes does not derive from the Sunni body politic — because the Sunnis avoided mass political expression in the January elections.

We are now at that perilous stage when the training wheels come off. And if the pundits have gone picnicking so far they are truly going to have a field day now, for we have reached the stage where our role, increasingly, will be to stand on the sidelines much as parents of teenagers do, and watch as a fledgling nation tries its wings for the first time.

The new government may well falter. It will certainly fall down once or twice, and when it does the Pessimism Police will be right there with their shrill little whistles saying, "I told you so".

But if the Constitution is defeated on October 15th will that be the final blow to hopes of a free and democratic Iraq?

Of course not. It will undoubtedly be discouraging. But in the end, the Iraqis will just have to go back to the drawing board and argue, draw up new plans, compromise, and reach a consensus that is agreeable not only to the Shiite majority but to the Sunni minority. This is democracy in action: an admittedly imperfect and inefficient process by which we attain majority rule with protection for minority rights. Is this such a horrible thing? If we can stand by their side and maintain order, allow them the space to make this fragile dream a reality, what a powerful vision will be set before the Arab world: indeed, before literally hundreds of small nations who are longing for democracy.

Democracy can work. The road is not always easy, nor free of bloodshed and strife. But it is possible. Truly, a fire has been lit in the hearts of men, and that fire is not so easily extinguished as the naysayers would have us believe.

Posted by Cassandra at August 31, 2005 06:24 AM

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Of course communication was much slower in the 1700's, but the U.S. Coctitution took over 10 years to finalize and ratify...the Iraqis haven't even had 10 months yet.

Posted by: camojack at August 31, 2005 01:13 PM

Pardon the typo...I even used "Preview", but missed it then, too.

I really do know how to spell Constitution...

Posted by: camojack at August 31, 2005 01:15 PM

That cunning lingual ability strikes again, and this after Cass's post of John Roberts' special qualification for oppression. It is a conspiracy.

Posted by: Cricket at August 31, 2005 02:59 PM

Here we go again. Better send the kiddies off to bed, cause its gettin adult all up in here.

Posted by: a former european at August 31, 2005 05:02 PM

That cunning lingual ability strikes again, and this after Cass's post of John Roberts' special qualification for oppression. It is a conspiracy.
Posted by: Cricket at August 31, 2005 02:59 PM

Actually, that was a laps(e) in the cunning lingual abilities...if you know what I mean.

Posted by: camojack at August 31, 2005 05:15 PM

Okay, I should more than likely post this under the JR thread, but I had this new party game idea along the lines of Pin the Tail on the Donkey only there would be partisan versions of the game. Republicans would be elephants and Democrats would be donkeys.
It gets rather raunchy after that.
Oh well.

Posted by: Cricket at August 31, 2005 09:44 PM

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