Thursday, October 13, 2005

Iraqi Constitutional Referendum Prediction

Let me tell you what’s going to happen with the referendum on the Iraqi Constitution this weekend. Oh, I don’t know if it will pass. My guess is that it will - one way or another. I meant here in the US.

Administration critics will worry about the possibility of the referendum failing, but be quick to point out that its success would not necessarily represent a milestone toward democracy. Even the best of constitutions don’t mean anything just on paper. What makes a Constitution a bedrock for Democracy are the institutions, legal and social, that use and value it. These institutions just don’t exist yet in Iraq. Iraqis are still struggling to achieve basic security and services. Let us also not forget that most of the thorny issues - regional autonomy, control of oil revenues, the role of religious law and the rights of women - have yet to be hammered out.

Seeking to lower expectations, or perhaps hedge its bets, the Bush Administration sent its ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to make some of these very points.

But then, this constitutional referendum really isn’t about Iraq or the Iraqis. It’s happening when it’s happening not because this is the most urgent need for the people of Iraq right now or Iraq is ready to do this now or that there is a strong popular demand for it. Although I have no doubt that turn-out will be high. Clearly there is a real and important need being expressed by the Iraqi people to take control of their own destiny. Nevertheless, the real reason for this weekend’s referendum is to stay on the Bush Administration timetable, to avoid any further disappointments or apparent failures. And this is so we can start to get ourselves out of there. The war is no longer popular domestically.

And here we have a reasonable confluence, for once, of Iraqi and American interests. Last January, in the interim elections, the Iraqi people voted largely for parties calling for the timed or immediate withdrawal of US forces and not the US-backed interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi. Champions of Democracy that we are, most Americans were far more interested in the fact that there was a vote and not so much in what was being voted for. This upcoming referendum gives the Iraqi people another chance to ask us to leave, even if in the form of “There, we voted on the Constitution. Now will you go?” And I think we would do best to view the referendum, whatever the outcome, as a claim on true sovereignty if not necessarily a milestone towards democracy.

The situation is of course more complicated than that. The US presence serves many a varied purpose for many a varied Iraqi faction. And for some the uncertainty and turmoil of occupied Iraq might be preferable to an Iraq in which they feel disadvantaged or disempowered. Try to put yourself in this very position. You need to weigh in basic security, employment, clean water and food, decent housing and services. Then add to that the odious occupation of a foreign military contrasted against the fresh memories of a despotic dictator. Then decide on a not yet finished constitution that apportions power and affirms or fails to affirm rights, all the while knowing that this is part of the route out for your occupiers - with all the good and ill they represent. Clearly, that ought to be the story here.

The rest of the story has also got to be why this referendum represents that complex of issues and not the milestone towards democracy the Bush Administration will claim. The rest of the story is the long trail of incompetence, arrogance, errors and lack of planning that brought us to this very place. In fairness to Bush, though, the initial invasion was itself so wrongheaded that it is unlikely even the most competent and well executed of post-invasion plans would have gone smoothly.

Yet, I still need to make that prediction I proffered at the outset. It is just this. When the Sunday morning news shows this referendum is timed to occur just before roll around, the Right will indulge themselves in another round of triumphalism, just as they did after the Jan 30th interim election, as if they bloodshed and turmoil of the past eight and a half months had not gone on unabated. Furthermore, they will launch an assault on non-triumphalists accusing us of wanting Iraqi Democracy to fail in order to score domestic political points. And here the Bush Administration’s arrogance and incompetence will once again be their own defense. Of course, pointing out the incompetence which contributed to the failure to realize the centerpiece policy of the Bush Administration will make Bush look bad. But that fact does not invalidate the point - Bush staked his presidency on a mission he had no idea how to accomplish. When the administration’s defenders accuse its critics of blaming Bush for everything, the implicit assumption is that no one is that bad and therefore the barrage of constant criticism could not be a reaction to a series of actual blunders. I’ll say this to any browsing Bushies: I’ll stop criticizing your boy when he stops screwing up.

Speaking of criticism, don’t expect much from the Democrats. It will fall to critics outside the mainstream of politics to make the case for realism. Unfortunately, it will also fall to journalists outside the mainstream of journalism to ask substantiative questions about the actual content of the proposed Constitution, the level of development or reconstruction of the institutions of Iraqi civil society, the meaning and importance of the referendum to the Iraqis as individuals - as opposed to as a broad abstraction - and to invoke any mention of recent history.

Just like last January, the Bush Administration is counting on the triumph of form over substance and the ability of marquee events to offer a fresh start, a clean slate, to wipe away the mistakes of the past by rendering them irrelevant.

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