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Summer Blues

Perhaps it's a hallucinatory effect of just too much heat. But as this summer sizzles to a close, it certainly seems that the conflagration in Iraq is raging out of all control and that current policy — essentially supported by parties — does nothing except stoke the flames.

After months of dickering and extended and, finally, overlooked deadlines, the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad has come up with its final constitution. And far from a blueprint for democracy, the proposed charter comes off much more like a playbook for all-out civil war.

Everyone who cares to know, maybe even the geniuses in the Bush administration, knows that the key to peace in Iraq resides in placating the once-powerful Sunni minority. Fearing a breakup of Iraq and domination of its wealth by the northern Kurds and the southern Shia, many Sunni see no reason not to support those who have taken up arms against the regime and its American backers.

Yet, instead of reaching a consensus with the Sunni, the Kurds and the Shia will try to impose a constitution that favors them.

The only wise move the Iraqi drafters made was to not submit the document to the National Assembly for approval, as it would have been smothered by the Sunni faction. Instead, the constitution will go straight to a national plebiscite six weeks from now and will serve as the perfect accelerant for the sectarian fighting well under way.

For analysts like Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Iraq’s civil war has already begun. “The question is only who is participating and to what extent,” he told the press as soon as the new constitution was unveiled.

A shudder was, indeed, sent through the entire Arab world which, rightly, fears that an escalated war in Iraq will inevitably spill over its borders and envelop the region. In an interview on BBC radio following the drafting of the constitution, Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, described parts of the draft as a “recipe for chaos.”

Only two outcomes seem likely in the next handful of weeks. Either the Sunni Arabs will manage a two-thirds majority in three of the country’s 18 provinces, which would scuttle the constitution. Or they will fail and spiral down so much deeper in their despair, disenfranchisement and rebellion. So, yes, chaos if we’re lucky. Otherwise, the götterdämmerung.

George W. Bush’s only response to this is to say he’s “very optimistic” and that “as the Iraqis stand up — we will stand down.” But just who in Iraq is willing to stand for Iraq?

Building national security institutions — an effective army and police — is not a simple question of military consolidation and technical expertise as the Bush administration would like to have us believe. It is, rather, primarily a political matter. Stability only comes when critical political mass is generated — when there are enough soldiers willing to die for an identifiable state. The new constitution retards that goal. More accurately, it simply reflects the imbalances aggravated by the U.S. invasion and occupation.

Bush’s splendid little adventure has set into force powerful centrifugal forces that are feverishly breaking out of control. Iraq — thanks to the British colonialists — was always a paper-thin, manufactured state. Only the leaden hand and the willing trigger finger of a tyrant like Hussein could hold the national state together. We blew off the lid but were unprepared to deal with the consequences. As a result, we have fortified the pro-Iranian Shiite forces who have, in turn, consolidated their political influence over the “national” government while — in the northern part of Iraq — the Kurds have bunkered down to defend their all-but-in-name independence.

Consequently, there are now battalions aplenty of Iraqi Shia ready to defend to the death what is now their incipient Islamic republic. And there are tens of thousands of skilled Kurd peshmarga fighters totally devoted to the cause of... Kurdistan. But that leaves few people, if anybody, ready to die for Iraq.

That, apparently, is the exclusive job of young American men and women in uniform. It is, for sure, a noble cause. But one that increasingly exists only on paper (as well as in the florid imaginations of the administration ideologues). Few experienced observers believe that the Sunni-fueled insurgency can achieve a military victory and overthrow the Baghdad government. But even fewer believe it can be militarily defeated. Staying the course means only oiling a meat grinder.

It’s still possible that further negotiations will lead to some agreement by which some Sunni leaders will endorse the constitution. Whatever deal may be concluded, however, will likely have little or no braking effect on the increasingly bloody ethnic war on the ground.

Many who oppose this war believe that, magically, we have reached some sort of turning point in opposition. That might, in fact, be the case. But none of that sentiment is reflected in real-life policy nor even very much at all in the official Beltway debate.

Far from the end of the war in Iraq, we may only be viewing its opening phases. Imagine the Balkans writ large across the Middle Eastern oil fields. In fact, you don’t need to imagine anything. Just read the front page of the morning paper.

The summer of our discontent over Iraq will certainly be remembered. Mostly as a time when the American political class went on vacation only to never come back.

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