Iraq Q&A: Andrew Arato

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Yesterday, the headlines were all abuzz over the Iraqi parliament’s decision to give itself another week to haggle over the draft constitution, which will, if finished, go before the Iraqi voters for a referendum sometime this fall. (It can be defeated by either a majority “no” vote or a “no” vote from two-thirds of voters in any three provinces.) To get a bit more context on what’s going on with the ongoing negotiations, and what they portend for the future of Iraq, I recently spoke with Andrew Arato of the New School University, who has written extensively on the subject. The interview’s transcribed here:


Mother Jones: What are some of the dangers in the United States the Iraqis to finish the constitution so quickly? Rumsfeld originally told them to stick to the August 15th deadline, and now they’ve been given an extra week.

Andrew Arato: There are some advantages, to be fair. If the principals can all strike a deal on a constitution, it’s important to get it through quickly, because so many actors can bring a deal down. Just over the past few weeks, it just took [Ayatollah Abdul-Aziz] Hakim, [who has recently made demands for an autonomous Shiite “super-province” in the south, along with control of the oil resources there], which was probably motivated by Iran, and suddenly the constitution was in danger. So there are advantages to pushing for a quick deadline.

The big disadvantage, though, is that the principals in this constitutional committee all met only a very short time ago, August 6th, and so now they’re rushing, and might not even reach an agreement. Even if they do, another danger is that parliament might just have to rubber-stamp whatever document comes out of committee, because they won’t have time to debate it. Ideally, there should be a full parliamentary discussion about this constitution, with debate and amendments; ideally it would be shown on TV for the public to watch. That’s really crucial. But with this rush to finish a draft in committee, parliament might have to discuss the final draft in as little as a day, next week. That’s no good: then you get a situation similar to what happened with the EU referendum in France and Netherlands, where the public debate is foreshorten, and the constitution is essentially seen as an elite-driven process, which could spur a democratic “no” by the public.

Then of course, this rush makes it look like America’s behind all of this. Because there’s no Iraqi reason to rush the constitution, after all; instead, it looks like this process is being driven by poll numbers, being rushed for political reasons in America, just like the interim constitution was rushed for political reasons. So [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq] Zalmay Khalilzad now looks like he’s imposing on the whole process—and even if it’s not true, it seems so.

MJ: Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. wanted the Iraqis to draw up a constitution that was easy to amend so that Iraq could “grow into a democracy”. In essence, they would table all the difficult issues now—oil, women’s rights, federalism—and just produce a constitution that could be changed down the road. Does this seem like a good idea?

AA: That Post quote has a bit to do with the fact that, at some point, Khalilzad offered a pretty extraordinary proposal to the drafting committee, which was perhaps already under discussion. Basically, if the Iraqis couldn’t come to an agreement on the major issues, Khalilzad proposed a rule that would allow future amendment of the new constitution by a simple majority of parliament. Now that would be a funny way of “growing into a democracy”. With that rule, at some later date, an Arab majority in parliament could say: Why should the Kurds get all this great stuff? The Americans aren’t here anymore, we don’t want to give the Kurds so much. So you could easily “grow” into a civil war. Or let’s say Khalilzad forces the Iraqis to accept reasonable gender rights in the constitution; later on they could be easily stripped by a simple amendment rule. So it would be much better to have a final constitution that’s harder to amend.

MJ: You’ve written before that Iraq’s interim constitution, the Transitional Administrative Law didn’t really promote constitutional “learning”—that it was too rigid and not easily amended, and didn’t give the Iraqis a chance to experiment in the past. Do you think any part of the current impasse can be traced back to that?

AA: This interim constitution is really at the root of current problems. I used to say that the interim constitution should be flexible, so that Iraqis could experiment with what works and what doesn’t, and then the final one more rigid, and harder to amend. But the interim constitution, the TAL, was very rigid because there’s a Kurdish-American bargain at the heart of the TAL—the structure of that constitution essentially laid the groundwork for a federal state structure for Iraq, which in turn necessitated lots of veto points. So the TAL was hard to amend, and now the Kurds have a lot of ability to veto any final constitution. And now the Shia—at least the SCIRI elements—are asking for their own autonomous province, which would leave Sunni oil-poor and create all sorts of problems. And the funny thing is, the Americans insisted on the TAL, the interim constitution, but now they don’t want to break up Iraq. So Khalilzad’s essentially dealing with a problem that the Americans created.

MJ: In your recent essay, “Empire’s Democracy (Ours and Theirs)”, you noted that, in order to secure gender and civil rights in Iraq, “Sistani’s methods should be used against Sistani himself.” I was wondering if you could just explain this briefly?

AA: Initially, of course, the US didn’t have democratization as a major motive for the war in Iraq—although it was mentioned before the invasion, it wasn’t a major reason. Later on—after no WMDs were found, no al-Qaeda links were proved—democratization became a major reason for the war. So Sistani started making a straightforward democratic claim, that the Iraqi constitution should be a work of the people—not of the occupiers or of Shia clergy—which led to the elections we eventually saw. So it was clear that Sistani’s democratic message was a winner. Now Sistani might in turn be amenable to the idea that in order to have a working democracy, Iraq also needs civil rights, gender equality, etc. So it might pay for women’s groups not to be so hostile towards Shia clergy, as many of them are. They might need to approach those that have been championing democracy and work with them. How successful would that tactic be, who knows? But it may be more successful than denouncing the clergy outright.

At any rate, right now, as far as the constitution goes, it looks like they’re not going to put in the worst formulations concerning the role of Islam, and gender inequality. Of course, that won’t affect much at the local levels, especially in the southern provinces. Even if the constitution contains rights for women, well, Iraq won’t be the only Arab country where rights are declared and not respected. Even in Turkey, which has a very secular self-image—even there, things aren’t great for women out in the villages. And Iraq won’t be as secular as Turkey.

But the constitution is still important. It may not be bad that Khalilzad’s being heavy-handed on this issue: the U.S. has a responsibility to the women of Iraq. In the south, after all the wars the Shiite men have fought and died in, women may comprise 55-60 percent of the population there. But anyway, I don’t think any constitutional formulation will have much practical effect now. On the other hand, if the constitution did enshrine sharia and the like, that could be even worse. If it at least pays lip service to women’s rights, then that’s something people can point to later on. Also, it looks like the constitution will set aside a fourth of the seats in parliament for women—maybe for just the next two elections, maybe longer, it hasn’t been settled. But that could mean that, even though there’s a regression of personal rights now, political rights for women could change that. Right now, you can’t count on Shia women in the National Assembly to do anything for women’s rights, but that could change in the future.

MJ: Now you’ve mentioned that you think the Kurdish provinces might veto the constitution, but perhaps not the Sunni ones? Why?

AA: Well, first, the constitution could fail on a majority vote, that’s still entirely possible. But as for vetoes. If you look at the breakdown of the population in Iraq—the newspapers almost never give us the demographic numbers, and they’re hard to find—I would guess that the Kurdish provinces are almost entirely composed of Kurds, so they could get two-thirds of voters in three provinces to vote against the constitution if they wanted to. But in the three Sunni provinces, it’s not clear that those provinces are entirely Sunni. They might not be able to veto.

Plus, you have to think, from the point of view of the Sunnis, if the constitution fails, it’s not a great option to go back to the interim constitution, the TAL, because then they get back to the federalist structure, and the breaking up of Iraq, and the Sunnis get left out, while the Kurdish and Shiite provinces take all the resources. On the other hand, if the constitution passes, the Sunni might be able to win enough votes in the next parliament—by combining with enough nationalist Shia—to reverse this trend towards the breaking up of Iraq. Jaaferi and the other religious Shiites might not be in power next time around. So that could end up being the best option for them.


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