“A growing number of senior American military officers in Iraq have concluded that there is no long-term military solution to” the Iraqi insurgency. That was Tom Lasseter’s lede to his Knight-Ridder story yesterday. That leaves, of course, a political solution to the insurgency, in which the Shiites try to lure mainstream Sunnis into the constitutional process and draw support away from the insurgents. That sounds like a brilliant idea, of course, but the problem here is that it’s also completely and utterly obvious, and not just completely and utterly obvious to me and other latte-swilling liberals safe behind our computers here at home, but obvious to the White House, the Defense Department, the State Department, and just about everyone in Iraq for months now. It’s not like no one’s thought of this before. The idea that the Sunnis need to be drawn into the political process has become something of a truth universally acknowledged—as with the idea that we need to train the Iraqi security force—and yet no one has been able to make it happen. Today’s New York Times brings word of more stalemate between the Sunnis and Shiites on the issue.
Again, safe behind our computers here at home, it’s difficult to figure out just how intractable the disagreements here really are, but let’s take a look. The Shiites recently tried to offer the Sunnis 15 seats on the 55-seat committee charged with drafting a new constitution, and that number roughly reflects the Sunni share of the Iraqi population (actually, it is overly generous). The Sunnis, for their part, want 25 seats, indicating that they are only willing to drop so far from their previously ruling roost. And so long as Sunni-related elements seem to be winning the battle of guns, knives, and IEDs on the ground—insofar as “winning” for them means disrupting the peace, fomenting sectarian tensions, and simply not being defeated—they’re in a position to hold out for more concessions. After all, a while back no one was even considering handing the Sunnis anything more than scraps. But a few thousand dead Iraqi civilians later, suddenly the new government is willing to offer a group that boycotted the election a disproportionately high number of seats on the constitutional drafting committee. Guess who holds the cards here.
Now it’s true that both the Sunni insurgency and the Sunni political “leadership” is highly fragmented, but surely there are enough groups here that see the potential gains from holding out, letting the killing continue, and reaping greater political power down the road. On the other hand, it’s also extremely unlikely that the long-oppressed Shiite majority is ever going to let the Sunnis have anything even approaching a dominant role in Iraq. It’s true that recently the Shiite governing majority backed off its demand for a strong role for Islam in the constitution, which, though not a terribly important issue in and of itself, does signal a willingness by the Shiites to try to be as accommodating as possible. But the important thing here is that they weren’t giving up anything substantive. Meanwhile, Shiite militias, like the radical Badr Brigade, are wreaking havoc across the country, attacking Sunnis and enforcing their brand of Wild West-style law and order, making it clear that many hard-line Shiites don’t intend to do any sort of appeasing anytime soon.
At some point, the only way out of this stalemate may be, as praktike notes, getting the Sunnis to see the Americans as their guardians and protectors against the roving hordes of fanatical Shiites. But enough Sunni negotiators would have to believe that they can’t get any more leverage out of the looming threat of the insurgency. Surely some politicians might believe that, and deals can be struck with or without popular support, but the logic of the situation very much militates against compromise at the moment.