The incompetence of the U.S. government’s policy in Iraq was demonstrated by this weekend’s referendum on the Iraqi Constitution. The Constitution, written by the Shi’a and Kurds, has passed, over the objections of many Sunnis. Yet it symbolizes one of the U.S. government’s biggest errors in Iraq: confusing democracy with liberty.
Curiously, the United States has forgotten the wisdom of its own founders, who were more concerned with liberty than democracy. In fact, many of them regarded democracy as “mob rule.” They realized that a majority, through an election, could gain control of government power and impose tyranny on a minority. They wisely limited the jurisdiction of government, created competing branches to diffuse governmental power, and created a bill of rights so that government could not usurp the liberties of the minority. Unfortunately, over the course of U.S. history, the American public, media, and politicians have become enamored with democracy at the expense of liberty.
Regrettably, it may take a policy failure in Iraq to refresh the American memory about the wisdom of the founders. The U.S. government has instituted, by force, democratic processes in Iraq. However, this effort does not solve the main problem: convincing a disaffected, well-armed minority to quit fighting against the Iraqi government and the U.S. occupation that props it up. In fact, the democratic process–”in this case, the constitutional referendum–”has conclusively demonstrated to the Sunnis that even if they vote, they are at the mercy of the alliance of Kurds and Shi’a. Thus, the referendum will likely fuel the rebellion, not weaken it.
The situation in Iraq has so deteriorated that a civil war is now the most likely outcome. Ironically, a rejection of the constitution might possibly have diminished the chances of such an all-out internecine bloodbath. In sharp contrast to the president’s “happy talk to victory” strategy, a constitutional defeat could have compelled a start for genuine Iraqi self-determination. A conclave of representatives from all of Iraq’s diverse tribes and ethnic and religious groups meeting on their own timetable would have allowed true consensus-building. In such a grand council, the Iraqis would have had a variety of possible governing structures to choose from, not just an imposed U.S.-style federation. More than likely, they would have eventually chosen some type of looser confederation or even a partition.
Although the Sunnis now oppose such decentralized structures, their opposition centers more on the potential loss of oil revenues to the Kurds and Shi’a and less on regaining control of the entire country. This problem might have been solved by a negotiated arrangement to share oil revenues among the decentralized regions or by redrawing the map to give the Sunnis some of the oil fields. A myth exists that to ensure stability, decentralized regional governments would have needed to administer contiguous parcels of land. Finally, the knowledge that U.S. forces, which protect Shi’ite and Kurdish interests, would have been withdrawing quickly would have given those groups an incentive to quickly reach an agreement on sharing oil fields or revenues with the Sunnis.
But alas, the constitution has been approved, the insurgency will continue and probably intensify, and the United States seems likely to continue to adopt policies that will make the situation in Iraq worse. For example, a congressional source informs me that Henry Hyde and Tom Lantos, the chairman and ranking minority member of the House International Affairs Committee, will surreptitiously attempt to impose further economic sanctions on Syria–”ostensibly to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but really to turn the screws for not preventing Iraqi insurgents and supplies from crossing the porous Syrian-Iraqi border.
Since Syria has provided some help to the United States in the war on terrorism, perhaps the U. S. government should use carrots instead of sticks. Instead of imposing new sanctions, the United States could offer to remove existing sanctions if the Syrians tighten up the border. And if, by some miracle, an eventual political settlement that quelled the violence was ever reached in Iraq, a better relationship with Syria might provide the Assad government with an incentive not to undermine it. But the U.S. government keeps soldiering on with its bellicose–”and counterproductive–”policy toward Syria, which could put the United States on a trajectory for war with that nation.
Unfortunately, the founders’ enlightened policies that treasured liberty and presumed friendly relations with all nations are long gone. Instead, the United States is now tragically faced with a downward spiral into an Iraqi civil war.