A Solution for Iraq?
Amazingly, nearly everyone in the Obama administration seems to have been caught off guard by the recent paradigm-shifting turn of events in Iraq, even though to many of us outside the administration this has been more like watching a train wreck in slow motion that has quickly accelerated into real time. President Obama is once again sending in more American troops, this time ostensibly for logistical support, but these things have a way of taking on a life of their own, which is unfortunate because this initiative will fail just as President Bush’s military surge in 2007 has ultimately proven inadequate to the task of creating a democratic, unified, and peaceful Iraq. The sectarian violence between the Sunnis and Shiites is clearly a situation that requires a political rather than a military solution. ISIS, whose single-minded goal is to remake the entire region into a caliphate, would not have achieved anywhere near their recent, stunning successes without the active and tacit support that it has received from many Sunni groups who understandably feel disenfranchised in the current political system.
At the core of this problem is a very flawed constitution that naively relies on the magnanimity of the ruling political party to accommodate the significant groups. In any successful democratic political system, the need for consensus must be woven directly into the constitutional fabric of the political process. So many other incipient attempts at democracy around the world have quickly imploded because they employed a simplistic, atomized, and naively platonic view of what constitutes ‘the people’. Real life is more molecular and organic. The makeup of the legislature should also reflect the various, diverse groups. The surest way to do that is to that is with a bicameral legislature. The lower house can represent the individuals with the upper house doing the same but also giving a necessary voice to the collective identity latently embedded in the various groups and regions.
It is, of course, much too late to go back to square one and write a new constitution. Even attempting to amend the constitution in the current volatile situation will only make things worse. But perhaps by examining exactly how this apparent constitutional deficiency has specifically manifested itself in Iraq’s current situation, we can stabilize the situation, find some movement for a way forward, and then make the proper constitutional changes once we’re on firmer political ground.
As it stands now, the Sunnis have never fully participated in the political process. At first that was by design, as significant portions of the population boycotted a process that they felt was (and, in fact, still is) unfairly stacked against them. Later on, when they did decide to fully engage, they found that they were shut out, an untenable situation that would have occurred even had they decided to enthusiastically participate from the start. It is that process itself that must change. At this point, the Sunnis will not be mollified (nor should they) by a few random cabinet appointments when they know all too well that in another two years they will once again be marginalized and then subsequently persecuted, perhaps even worse than they are now.
An upper chamber like the U.S. Senate functioning alongside (and in some executive aspects, above) the Iraqi General Assembly may be just what’s needed. With a Senate comprised of nine districts -- three in the Shiite South, three in the Sunni triangle, and three in the Kurdish North -- and having two senators representing each district regardless of size or population; no religious or ethnic group could dominate.This would induce the Sunnis to stay politically (as opposed to militarily or covertly) engaged. The Shiites would be assured in knowing that they would still control a plurality of the General Assembly. The Kurds would have an even greater voice in such a system as they would often be the deal maker, yet not too big a voice that it would raise the suspicions of any neighboring countries who are worried about sparking any nationalistic aspirations of their own Kurdish populations.
With at least ten senators needed to pass any law, the various groups would be forced to work together. Ideally, the nine senate districts will straddle the eighteen provinces that make up Iraq. Creating an overlapping meshwork will strengthen the Federal system. Most significantly, with the Senate districts loosely connected to the land itself rather than directly tied to a particular ethnic group or religious sect, Iraq will have the means to eventually move away from the sectarian paradigm as it eventually assumes a more cosmopolitan national identity.
It may also eliminate the possibility of provinces banding together to form regions as is allowed in Chapter 5 of the Constitution. This particular provision lends a level of uncertainty to the situation from the sectarian standpoint liable to cause problems later. Vice President Joe Biden and others who havecasually talked of the balkanization of Iraq as an easy solution exhibit a breathtaking naiveté. Iraq will not be so easily or cleanly broken up. Neighborhoods and even individual blocks would turn into battlefields.
It’s a happy, perhaps even provident, coincidence that Iraq already has a second legislative body called the Council of Union. It was essentially created to pay bills, with the rest of its powers and responsibilities left open for future consideration. This body could tacitly be elevated to the level of a ‘Senate’ with the appropriate boundaries just ahead of the cumbersome amendment process.
Of course, in the current environment, no political settlement will work unless the more immediate issue of the intense sectarian violence is addressed. A concentrated effort by the Iraq military with logistical U.S. support is clearly in order but it won’t be enough. Perhaps a high profile group of Sunni and Shiite clerics could be induced to specifically condemn certain extreme aspects of the sectarian violence such as decapitations and attacks on mosques and religious shrines. Although some religious leaders have instigated much of the local violence, others have been particularly repulsed by the most recent severe turn of events. It is precisely these more repugnant means and methods of physical engagement that the more moderate religious authorities should stand together to condemn. This is the easiest way to reach and then slowly build on a broad consensus in order to pull this situation back from the brink.
The third essential piece of this puzzle is the shattered socioeconomic environment. As badly as the physical infrastructure has been damaged over the past decade of war, it is the socioeconomic infrastructure that may be most crucial to a peaceful Iraq. If Europe or the United States had an unemployment rate in excess of 40%, a similar amount of dangerously volatile civil unrest would undoubtedly exist. The trick may be in ostensibly rebuilding the physical infrastructure while actually repairing the socioeconomic situation.
Several semi-autonomous agencies should be created to oversee various restoration projects. The constitutional framework for this already exists. Part IV of the Iraqi constitution calls for the creation of independent organizations outside of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Article 110 states that oil revenue should be distributed fairly among the country’s regions and provinces but it does not go into specifics. Having the money effectively distributed through public works projects managed by the semi-autonomous agencies (as opposed to the all-too-prone to favoritism, sectarian dominated provinces) is a way to pull the country out of its socioeconomic depression while avoiding the typically small-minded provincialism that tends to derail economic progress. Each semi-autonomous agency should have its own independent board of directors who are approved by the Council of Union.
The stakes are high. The resultant political vacuum left by the implosion of Iraq could easily draw in the entire region, perhaps even the world. (It’s happened before with a relatively smaller incident.) This is not the time to go small or simple with a few “this point in time” token cabinet appointments. Only a clear, dynamic, and teleological change in the process can put Iraq on a forward path to a real functioning democracy. Creating a ‘Senate’ to address the sectarian fragmentation and a Marshall Plan to mend the socioeconomic infrastructure with major input from the religious authorities on matters of engagement may be just the top down, bottom up, politically self-contained approach that’s needed.