Not Quite the Federalist Papers...

| Tue Aug. 23, 2005 10:02 PM EDT

I suppose we'll just have to see what happens with the new Iraqi constitution over the next few days, as the legislature bickers over crossing t's and dotting i's, and getting the darn thing translated from English to Arabic. At this point, though, most commentary will be very tentative, since in the past most political negotiations in Baghdad have followed the same pattern—everyone maximalizing their demands, everything looking hopelessly gridlocked, and then at the last moment they all pull back for a big compromise and group photo op. Maybe that will happen again; maybe not. Right now, it seems that "federalism" still seems to be the big constitutional sticking point. Nathan Brown explains what this oft-bandied word actually means:

The disputed questions would probably even strike a veteran Israeli-Palestinian negotiator as complicated and difficult. How will Iraq be divided into regions and provinces? What will the authority of the various units be? Is the union a voluntary matter or one that is incontestable? What will be the role of regional security forces? Will the units have authority to reach agreements with foreign states and other actors, and, if so, in what areas? How will revenue be divided? What will be the relationship between federal and regional law? How will disputes be settled? Will other areas of the country be able to form units that are as autonomous as the Kurdish region?

I'm not a constitutional lawyer, so I can't make heads or tails of exactly how these issues were specifically resolved in the draft constitution (the text of which isn't even a "proper draft," as Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer tells us, but someone's scribbled notes), but apparently the Sunnis on the committee, "who had been shut out of the negotiations for much of the past week," don't like the end result. Spencer Ackerman gets at some of the dynamics involved here: If the Sunnis get locked out of the final draft, they may try to shoot the constitution down in referendum this fall, although Juan Cole and others have noted that they probably don't have the numbers to do it. (Maybe they can link up with Muqtada al-Sadr and other assorted rejectionists and disgruntleds.) What seems clear is that any constitution that truly angers the Sunnis will lead to a lot of bloodshed down the road: in addition to the diehard rejectionists and Sunni Islamists, even moderate Sunnis may now start aiding and abetting the insurgency.

Perhaps the Shiites aren't worried about all this, because they think that either the United States will stick around to defend them, or that their own militias will protect them against a Sunni onslaught. Ezra Klein says the Sunnis would be stupid to take on the Shiites in Iraq; they'd get trounced. Well, maybe. Then again, maybe not. The insurgency's pretty large and pretty sophisticated, it has plenty of officers experienced in war, and with enough money pouring in from Saudi charities, Sunni warlords could probably purchase a few tanks and other goodies on the open market. Or maybe they can hire out the services of those privatized military firms that are so hot these days. Either way, I wouldn't count the Sunnis out. Plus, whether they can survive an all-out butcher-fest or not seem pretty irrelevant; what matters is whether they're crazy enough to try—and in this case, the answer seems like "yes, they are".

So it's all fucked up. Withdrawal advocates have noted before that if the United States threatened to pull-out, say, right this very second, it might terrify the Shiite leadership into softening some of its constitutional demands, so as not to anger too many Sunnis. Up until now, I haven't been convinced that this was necessary—Ayatollah Sistani's men, at least, have always seemed liked they wanted to bargain. Now, it might be time for brinksmanship. As callous as it seems, at this point the U.S. owes the Shiites absolutely nothing. They owe the people of Iraq a stable state, if one can be produced, and if the Shiite leadership is intent on leading Iraq "into the abyss," as Ackerman puts it, then it's time to stop coddling and protecting them.

Meanwhile, on the question of women's rights, yes, the current constitution—at least what we can decipher of it from the early notepad doodlings—fails miserably. (Except, happily, in Kurdistan, where women's rights will be secure.) Echidne unleashes outrage and fury over this state of affairs far more eloquently than I ever could. Honestly, though, I don't know why people are getting so surprised now. Iraqi women were condemned to second-class status the day Sistani's fundamentalist party took power in January. Not to downplay how bad this all is, but I can't envision any scenario in which the Bush administration actually forced the Shiites to accept a non-Islamist constitution. Hopefully 20 years from now, mainstream Shiite jurisprudence will have evolved to the point where women get treated as equals. Or, since the constitution sets aside 25 percent of its seats for women, perhaps future elections will bring in a majority coalition of urban and secular Iraqis, including women, who have 20th century ideas about gender. Until then, we have what we expected: a fundamentalist American government sanctioned a fundamentalist Iraqi constitution. What a surprise.

So what else can be done, besides threatening to withdraw and hope the Shiites try to appease the Sunnis out of fear? Some observers have pointed out that Iraq might be best served if the parliament dissolved itself and held new elections—Juan Cole finds an az-Zaman report noting that Allawi's more urbane list, along with some Kurds, might try to band with the Sunnis to pursue this option. That seems like an awful idea. It would prolong the occupation even further, and whether or not one thinks that a "stay the course" approach could just barely dodge the "manpower meltdown" bullet that's approaching 36 months from now, it seems wholly unlikely that the US could stay through yet another round of parliamentary elections. Also, it might not change anything. The Shiite and Kurdish militias have an increasingly iron grip on their respective regions, while violence in the Sunni provinces has only worsened since January. My guess: hold another election, and thugs from SCIRI, the Mehdi Army, and the peshmerga would, um, "persuade" people to vote their way, insurgents would intimidate Sunnis from voting, and you'd get essentially the same cast of characters back in power. Perhaps not, but that's my guess. All in all, a real mess.