Events

Iraq: Making a State During Civil War

October 03, 2005 // 12:00pm2:30pm

Barbara Bodine, Executive Director, Governance Initiative in the Middle East, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; former US Ambassador to Yemen; Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center; Former Washington Post Baghdad Bureau Chief (April 2003 to October 2004); Brendan O'Leary, Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania, and constitutional adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government; Robert E. Looney, Professor of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School; Isam al-Khafaji, Professor, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands; former member, Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council under the Coalition Provisional Authority; John Tirman, Moderator: Executive Director, Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This event was cosponsored with the Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

John Tirman described the Iraqi situation as a complex task of building a new state in a stormy atmosphere with many sources of turbulence. He said the project is unusual and unprecedented in its scope and circumstance. Based on comparative historical analysis, one could argue this or that aspect of the Iraqi situation. More broadly, regional dynamics will either enhance stability or create persistent subversions of attempts to build functional political and economic institutions.

Brendan O'Leary said it is best for the drafting of the constitution to coincide with the peace process, but lamented that "we cannot always get what we want." He said there are two ways to view the draft constitution. First, a "vulgar" interpretation, which O'Leary dismissed, suggests the constitution is a worthless fiction or a charade. Alternatively, he posited a sophisticated view that making constitutions is a difficult enterprise and involves sewing together the interests and identities of at least three distinct collective communities.

O'Leary argued that the imperfect draft constitution is the sole means through which Iraq will preserve unity in the future without dictatorship or prolonged civil war. Federalism is the expressed wish of at least 80% of Iraq's currently elected representatives, he said. Consequently, if Sunni Arabs reject federalism, they are impeding the democratic process. O'Leary said that contrary to some reports, the United States has not sought a divide and rule policy; in fact, the United States has been fixated on a highly centralized government. This approach is due to Turkey's regional interests, reducing the risk of destabilizing Palestine and Jordan, and creating a counterbalance with Iran.

O'Leary suggested that the rapid democratization of Iraq has been catalyzed by the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Finally, O'Leary provided an overview of the process that led to the current draft constitution and said that he expects the constitutional referendum on October 15 will pass.

Barbara Bodine focused on the balance and relationship of the various ethnic groups, which in her view forms the core of the constitution. She suggested the ethnic and sectarian makeup of Iraq might have been oversimplified by reducing twenty-seven groups to three: the Sunnis; the Shiites; and the Kurds. While there is no question about the ethnic and sectarian identities, loyalties, and histories in Iraq and about the fact that they have been exploited by governing powers, it is equally inaccurate and more consequential to deny or dismiss the notion of an Iraqi identity that exists alongside these other identities, she said. Identity is not an either/or proposition, we all have multiple identities—of particular concern is which identity is in the ascendancy, which identity defines us or is used to define us.

Bodine cited Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, who observed that the United States went into Iraq with stronger sectarian and ethnic assumptions about the Iraqis than they themselves possessed. She said this inability or unwillingness to recognize the structures that could reinforce a national identity was a fatal disservice to the Iraqi people. American officials failed to recognize that complexities existed within the three main groups or that alliances could exist among these groups. This reflects a lack of understanding of Iraqi history. Bodine offered the Iran-Iraq War as an illustration of the supremacy of nationality in determining political allegiance.

Bodine discerned a clear push by the United States to get the constitution completed by October 15, and she wondered if the Iraqi people knew for which version they would be voting. She recognized the particular risk facing Sunnis, who will be relegated to the role of spoiler if they vote "No" and the referendum still passes. Finally, Bodine said that the U.S. government draws parallels with its own constitution drafting process, yet fails to recognize the significance of the debate prior to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Robert Looney provided an economic context for interpreting the current situation in Iraq and assessed the likelihood for substantial recovery in the near future. He referred to several problems with the economy such as high inflation, fiscal deficit, and unemployment. In addition, he referred to the lack of social capital in Iraq. This social deficit leads to a collapse in trust in social institutions and networks.

Looney said that in interpreting the draft constitution, one is immediately struck by the realization that very little is known about the forces that will be unleashed if it is passed. He said that current reconstruction efforts are centered on the theory that a virtuous cycle could be created, allowing a few economic winners to push for greater reforms and subsequent economic growth. Looney said officials overestimated the ability of such a cycle to take hold and instead predicted a vicious circle of violence and decline. A remote possibility remains that a virtuous cycle could manifest itself, but a severe lack of institutional infrastructure makes this improbable. Finally, Looney said that the issues of who will manage the oil reserves and how to promote macroeconomic stability will continue to be major dilemmas determining Iraq's economic future.

Isam al-Khafaji highlighted two main shortcomings in the discussion of Iraq's current predicament. He said people tend to forget about Iraq's regional space: Iraq is an impoverished, indebted country that has been dealing with the trauma of conflict, oppression, and sanctions for several years. It is difficult for Iraqis to deal with seemingly abstract political issues when they are struggling to meet their daily needs.

Khafaji said that Iraq's legacy is often also overlooked. Sixty percent of the population, which is under 21 years of age, does not know a reality besides the Saddam Hussein regime. Young people do not know how to vote, or about the purpose, composition, and significance of a constitution. He said it is unreasonable to expect Iraqis to understand the democratic process when they are unfamiliar to such concepts. To remedy this, it is necessary to separate the process of drafting a constitution from the document itself. The process is much more important because it educates people.

Khafaji mentioned the U.S. Bill of Rights as exemplifying the importance of the constitutional process. These amendments, he said, were the result of disputes, discussion, and education. The artificially imposed U.S. timetable sacrificed the ability of the Iraqi people to participate in the constitutional drafting process. "One day the consultants will leave, but [Iraq's] sons and grandsons will remain." If they are not able to enforce the rights enshrined in the constitution, the document will be irrelevant.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran provided an analysis of the comments made by the four other panelists. He said the lack of Sunni participation in the current drafting process will endanger the credibility of the constitution, if it is indeed ratified. He said it is "better to have a good document late than an imperfect document on time."

Chandrasekaran suggested that Americans have been led to believe that the differences between Sunnis and Shiites are not that great. Despite preliminary talk of truth and reconciliation, occupying forces failed to implement efforts designed to enhance communication among differing ethnic groups following the invasion of Iraq. He highlighted the dissolution and ban of the Baath party and the Iraqi army as an example of U.S. officials preventing various factions the opportunity for political inclusion. Overnight, the United States created hundreds of thousands of enemies for itself.

Finally, Chandrasekaran said he rejects the notion that Sunnis do not want to participate in the electoral process, but that the current dangerous environment has made it difficult for them to do so. The impetus by occupying forces to push for elections has prevented the full participation of a major portion of the Iraqi population and has threatened the legitimacy of the current draft constitution.


Drafted by Stephen Hendrickson

Experts & Staff

Wilson Center Photo Gallery

Browse or share photos from the Wilson Center’s events.

To Attend an Event

Unless otherwise noted:

Meetings listed on this page are free and open to the public. Reservations are not required unless otherwise noted. All meetings take place at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Please see map and directions. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry.

To confirm time and place, contact Maria-Stella Gatzoulis on the day of the event: tel. (202) 691-4188. Check this page for the latest updates and notices.