Iraqis should reject the constitution.

Military analysis.
Sept. 27 2005 3:52 PM

Just Vote No

Iraqis should reject the constitution.

When Iraqis go to the polls Oct. 15 to vote on the constitution, it would probably be best if they rejected it. Elections for a new parliament are scheduled to take place this December in any case. Let them be for a new constitutional assembly (as current law provides in the event of a rejection), and let the process start over again. Further delay may prolong the chaos, but passage of this parchment will almost certainly make things worse—and for much longer still.

I say this with nothing but dismay. The Bush administration wants to withdraw most U.S. ground troops from Iraq by the end of next year, as do I. The official rationale will be: We've done our job; Iraq has a new government and a new constitution; we'll keep a cadre of troops behind for training and essential security, but otherwise the defense of Iraq is up to the Iraqis. But if there is no new constitution, no new government, a major pullout will be harder to justify.

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And yet, the whole point of a constitution is to establish a foundation of consensus, to put forth a rule book that's accepted (even if reluctantly) by all the key factions; in short, to lay the groundwork on which politics can legitimately be played out.

This, Iraq's constitution clearly does not do.

The Iraqi insurgency—the main impediment to social, economic, and political order—is principally a Sunni insurgency. Any constitution worth its name would have to lure or co-opt the Sunnis, to give them an incentive to join the new political order. The actual proposed constitution, on the other hand, formally confirms and reinforces the Sunnis' sense of disenfranchisement.

The basic fact about Iraqi geography is that the Kurdish north and Shiite south have lots of oil, while the Sunni center does not. Read in this context, the basic fact about the Iraqi Constitution is that it strengthens the north and south, lets them form semiautonomous regions and expand them into super-regions—in short, it lets them dominate the country's politics and economics—while leaving the Sunnis with nearly nothing. It leaves the very faction that needs to be assimilated, if Iraq is to be a secure and viable nation, unassimilated. (For a more detailed analysis, click here and here.)

The very process that created the constitution is seen by many Sunnis as so arbitrarily rushed and so systematically dismissive of their interests that, if the document is approved, many Sunnis will reject the vote's legitimacy.

A report released yesterday by the independent, nonpartisan International Crisis Group goes further. The constitution, it concludes, "is likely to fuel rather than dampen the insurgency, encourage ethnic and sectarian violence, and hasten the country's violent break-up."

Is it possible that the Iraqis will vote the constitution down? There are two ways this can happen. It can be opposed by either 1) a majority of all Iraqis (very unlikely) or 2) two-thirds of the Iraqis in three of the country's 18 provinces. Sunnis hold a majority in four provinces (al-Anbar, Nineveh, Salah al-Din, and Diyala), but few analysts believe they'll muster a two-thirdsmajority in more than two of them. At least one Shiite faction in Basra has come out against the constitution—they see it as giving too much power to rival Shiite parties—but its province contains too few Sunnis to allow for a coalition. So, according to the conventional wisdom (though nobody knows how accurate that is), rejection is unlikely.

President George W. Bush likes to invoke the difficulties our own Founding Fathers endured in crafting a constitution. The analogy between Philadelphia 1787 and Baghdad 2005 is absurd on several counts (click here for details), but one comparison can be legitimately (if unpleasantly) drawn. A key breakthrough in Philadelphia was the Connecticut Compromise, which gave each state two senators, thus preserving the power of small states. But imagine there had never been this compromise. The constitution needed ratification by just nine of the 13 states in order to become the law of the land. Nine states might have signed on even without the compromise—but the union would not have lasted very long. The same is true of Iraq's constitution: Enough provinces may sign on—but that probably won't be enough to build a durable Iraqi nation.

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