Though the precise results are not yet known (the votes are still being tallied), it looks like the Iraqi Constitution was approved in last weekend's referendum—but by a margin too narrow to ensure its legitimacy. This would be the worst of both worlds.
The document could have been rejected either by a simple majority of Iraqi voters (always extremely unlikely) or by two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces. The provisional results seem to show that it was voted down in two provinces but not—just barely—in three. The two dissenting provinces, Anbar and Salahuddin, are dominated by Sunni Arabs, who feel—with reason—that the constitution allows them too small a role in Iraq's politics and too small a share in the country's oil wealth. One other heavily Sunni province, Diyala, voted against the constitution by a substantial majority—55 percent—but short of the two-thirds necessary to defeat it. The same may be true of a fourth province, Nineveh.
A few days before the Oct. 15 referendum, Shiite and Kurdish leaders promised to consider substantive amendments to the constitution in the first few weeks after a new parliament convenes at the start of next year. (Parliamentary elections are scheduled for December.) The leaders of some Sunni parties announced that, as a result of this concession, they would urge their followers to vote Yes at the referendum.
The question was how influential those Yes parties would be, compared with other Sunnis who were urging a No vote and still others who urged a boycott, often through intimidation and force. The answer, apparently, is: hardly influential at all.
The outright rejection of the constitution might have been a good thing. A new assembly would have been elected to start the process all over again. The Shiite and Kurdish delegates, who had excluded Sunnis from most of the drafting process, might have felt compelled to take their objections into account this time around.
Decisive approval—say, with a dissent from just one province—would have been good, too. It would have signaled a strong desire, by most Sunnis, to join the political order. It might have driven a solid wedge between the Sunnis and the insurgents who claim to express their interests, and therefore dealt a severe blow to the jihadists who have been committing the most violent acts. In short, it might—might—have marked a beginning of normal politics in Iraq.
But if the constitution passes in the face of considerable Sunni dissent—meaning that last week's compromise had essentially no effect—then the Iraqis, and we, are back where we started. In fact, we may all be worse off than before because the process of passing the constitution will have reinforced many Sunnis' impression that normal politics has nothing to offer them.
There may still be some hope. If the Shiite and Kurdish leaders really do follow up on their promise to consider substantive amendments—and not just consider them, but ensure that they pass—the Sunnis might yet sense some redemption. There is also the possibility that more Sunnis will participate in the parliamentary elections this December. Many Sunnis, including radical insurgents, now think it was a huge tactical and strategic mistake to boycott last January's election.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last weekend that it didn't matter how the referendum turned out. If the constitution passed, that would be a victory for Iraqi democracy. If it failed, that too would be a victory for Iraqi democracy. Rice is too smart not to see the speciousness in this claim. Then again, the sentiment does reflect the endless wishful thinking about this war on the part of the Bush administration.
During her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, Rice took another step out on this limb. Asked whether the administration might expand the war into Syria, where jihadists are using the border areas as supply bases, Rice refused to rule out any option. This refusal is standard procedure, under any administration. Still, who would be surprised to learn that some White House and Pentagon higher-ups are seriously considering this kind of escalation?
In some officials' eyes, we seem always to be just one turn away from the path to success. Saddam Hussein is captured—we've turned a corner. Sovereignty is handed over to Iraq—we've turned a corner. The first elections are held—we've turned a corner. The constitution is passed—we've turned a corner. And now is this the next step: We attack and destroy the jihadist sanctuaries in Syria—we turn a corner?
What happens with the constitution is not a trivial exercise. The whole point of a constitution is to create a consensually acceptable framework in which politics can function. The real question, which will be answered in the next couple of months, is whether the combatants in this phase of the Iraqi war—the Sunnis vs. the Shiites, mainly—are ready to agree on a framework. If they are, if their disputes can be ironed out, there will still be many problems and much violence, but at least there will be a "road map" (to borrow a metaphor from another Middle Eastern dispute). If they're not ready, then the new order and the constitution it embodies will only trigger harsher violence and a deeper war.