Global Policy Forum

Iraq's Charter Reflects a Deeper Arab Ordeal


By Rami Khouri

Daily Star
September 3, 2005

The spectacle of Iraqis negotiating intensively over their draft constitution during the past several months has been a very powerful one from the perspective of the wider Arab world. It is both a refreshing, hope-filled novelty, and a depressing rerun of old colonial habits. We should not lose sight of the significance of what is happening in Iraq, even though it is a consequence of a political dynamic that most of us in this region and around the world reject: an essentially unilateral American military expedition into the heart of Middle Eastern history, where the making and breaking of nation-states remains a disjointed joint venture of determined foreign powers and slightly dazzled natives.

The draft constitution will now be the new focal point for political contestation in Iraq, parallel to the combination of terrorism and anti-occupation resistance that are generally combined under the heading of "the insurgency." It is clear, though, that the majority of Iraqis, including Sunnis, wants to continue the peaceful political quest for a new Iraqi governance system that is legitimate, because it would be rooted in the common accord of all Iraqis. Will the draft constitution agreed on last week advance or retard this process? It will certainly force the continued search for an agreement on a new government structure - but not necessarily in a peaceful or smooth manner. More violence and discord are ahead, and perhaps civil war and a permanent fracturing of Iraq into smaller entities. What is certain now is that the Americans want to get out, the world wants them to get out, and the Iraqis want to be free and sovereign. So one way or another the coming year will see Iraq move more quickly toward self-rule and then full sovereignty, whether as one or several states.

How the constitutional process will impact on this unfolding trajectory requires analyzing the two separate levels of the matter, if we are not to hopelessly confuse the truly historic from the merely seasonal in the colonial and neocolonial history of Iraq and the Middle East. One level is constitutional formality and punctilio: the precise words and principles of the written constitution. The other, much more important, level is national and communal identity, and the power used to manifest that identity: when a million Iraqis march in the street, what do they want and how will they go about getting it? When the two levels of constitutionalism and national-communal identity coincide, the result is a stable, durable nation-state that peacefully and democratically resolves disputes on identity and power. Switzerland, Canada, the United States, Japan and many others come to mind. When constitutionalism, identity and power do not coincide, the result is Somalia, or Cyprus, or Yemen, or Civil War Lebanon. Like dozens of other countries that emerged from European colonial control in the 20th century in the same flawed state, they suffer the odd condition of being defined by a strikingly incongruous combination of impressive constitutions and laws, alongside unstable statehood, recurring communal violence, imprecise national identity, and routinely contested domestic power relationships.

Iraq today continues but also perhaps breaks this routine. It reflects a historical race between audacious American neo-colonialism and much denied Arab self-determination. The latest example of all that is wrong with Washington's approach is the way the American president managed the Iraqi constitutional process, using the same techniques with which he managed the last Republican Party convention. He had his man on the convention floor (the U.S. ambassador), his spin doctors worked overtime to give the global media good news, his political representatives lobbied and twisted arms behind the scenes for months to get the outcome he wanted, and at the critical moment he did what every successful domestic politician does - he worked the phones, calling the political heavyweights in Iraq to seal the deal. The consequence is a draft constitution that reflects domestic American political timetables as much as it mirrors any Iraqi national consensus. The specific clauses and principles in the constitution include huge ambiguities and occasional contradictions that collectively make this a document that is more impressive as a declaration of an Iraqi national desire and determination to agree, than as a blueprint for actual governance. The key disagreements are about issues of overwhelming centrality to the very concept of a nation-state - control of national resources and finances, police power, local and central government powers, the role of religion, Arab or non-Arab identities, and other issues of equal importance.

This should quickly tell us that the debate about the constitution is really a deeper debate about whether Iraq - like all Arab countries - is a logical and viable nation-state. This hard question has confronted all Arab countries, and all of us in this region have evaded it. Iraq cannot evade it, because hordes of armed young Anglo-American lads and lassies wiped out the old and brutal state structure, and Iraqis are struggling to replace it with a new structure that makes more sense to them. The stakes are very high in this process, because it revolves around a core dilemma that has plagued and confounded the entire Arab world throughout its modern history since the early 19th century: how do we reconcile our many, ancient and powerful communal, ethnic, religious and tribal identities with the more modern idea of statehood? The ultimate prize here that has long eluded all the people of the Arab world is the ability to engage in a process of legitimate national self-determination, i.e., ordinary citizens of an Arab society defining their own national borders, government system, official languages, secular-religious balance, relations with neighbors and foreign powers, and other such core issues that make up a nation-state and define how its own citizens actually use their sovereign power.

More Information on Iraq
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