Iraq: No Consensus, No Constitution

Original story found here.

Iraqi negotiators are as likely to agree on a constitution by Monday’s new deadline as American troops are likely to leave Iraq anytime soon. If leaders ultimately fail to reach a consensus, however, we could end up occupying Iraq for years if not decades to come.

It is hardly surprising that Iraqis are so divided. Any notion of pluralism, let alone democracy, is not only new to Iraq; it threatens to upset a regional balance of power that has lasted for centuries.

In a nation as inequitable and discriminatory as Iraq long has been, forging a consensus looks as difficult as the effort to end apartheid in South Africa was. This example shows, perhaps, that peace in Iraq may one day be possible — but not until after at least its three largest sides have fought it out hard and long enough to learn that compromising is their only remaining option.

We might never have invaded their nation if we had known how hard it would be for Iraqi groups to get along with each other. Much has been said about the Bush administration’s failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, after it alleged, along with most media, that they were there. But few people seem to realize that the administration and the same media together also planned an invasion for a fantasy nation.

In the years and months building up to the 2003 invasion, leading publications and columnists in the U.S. somehow wished Iraq’s toughest internal problems away.

A basic error in the reporting of Iraqi demographics gave a confusing and inaccurate portrayal of the country. In the 1990s, The Washington Post repeatedly described Iraq’s majority Shias as a “minority.”

In 1999, the journal Foreign Affairs published an article saying that Iraq’s big problem after Saddam Hussein will be helping its “Sunni majority” keep its Kurdish and Shi’a minorities from pulling away.

A 2002 op-ed by Henry Kissinger in The Washington Post warned that after Hussein, Iraq’s “Sunni majority” would need our help keeping the Kurdish and alleged Shi’a minorities in line.

Eight months before the invasion, William Safire, in The New York Times, downsized the so-called Sunni majority to a “plurality.”

Now, everyone knows that neither Iraq’s Sunni Arabs nor the country’s (Sunni) Kurds comprise more than 20 percent — at most — of the nation’s population, while nearly two-thirds of Iraqis are Shia Arabs.
By inflating the long politically dominant Sunni Arabs into an alleged majority, while downsizing the long-oppressed Shia Arabs into a so-called minority, the media allowed the administration to sidestep
the all-important question of what might happen to Iraq after Hussein.

The irony of this blind spot in the pre-invasion debate is that the same facts have played a role in our Iraqi policy before.

Back in 1991, after then-President George H.W. Bush repeatedly encouraged Iraqis to “toss aside” Hussein, he and his administration watched Iraq’s elite forces crush the very uprisings — by both the Shi’as in the south and the Kurds in the north — that they helped inspire. He and members of his cabinet later admitted that they did so because they feared the consequences of either Iraq’s Shi’a majority or Kurdish minority gaining more power.

Today, President George W. Bush still promises to bring democracy to Iraq, while adding earlier this week that he is optimistic that the Iraqis trying to negotiate a constitution will reach a consensus. That might have been easier if the fantasy nation that many pro-war experts, opinionists and pundits described before the invasion really existed. But the reality of Iraq is that the Shi’a majority is finally gaining the power that arguably it has long deserved, while the Kurdish minority is intent on preserving its hard-earned autonomy, if not breaking away from Iraq outright.

The Sunni Arab minority, meanwhile, is losing the power that it long has enjoyed out of proportion to its numbers.

It is possible to negotiate settlements to even the most entangled hostilities, as events in places as diverse as El Salvador, South Africa and Northern Ireland all show. But parties in each one of these conflicts only came to the table willing to make a deal after they more than flexed their military muscle. The bloody headlines coming out of Iraq every day show that Iraq’s Sunni Arabs still have plenty of muscle to flex. Many of them will keep on fighting to try and either restore themselves to power or at least strengthen their hand.