If Woody Hayes were the prime minister of Iraq, the constitutional referendum scheduled for next Sunday might never be held. The legendarily bad-tempered Ohio State football coach disdained the forward pass because he judged the promise of quick gain to be overshadowed by the risk of failure. He said, concisely, that “When you throw a pass, only three things can happen and two of them are bad.” Because the Iraqi referendum is a long pass into heavy defensive coverage, Coach Hayes’s description of the risk is decidedly apt. But the decision to throw it is entirely correct because if it succeeds or better yet fails constructively, Iraq can make substantial progress toward democracy.
The auguries are not good. The Sunni minority — briefly believed to have learned the lesson that refusing to participate in democracy weakens your ability to be represented in the results — is still condemning the draft constitution as a “mongrel document” and their leaders still place more trust in the terrorist insurgency than the vote. The most prominent Shia leaders are supporting the constitutional referendum, ordering their followers to vote. They are — with the notable exception of Moqtada al Sadr, whose terrorist militia is causing more and more trouble in the Basra area — content to rely on democracy because it is most likely to bring about the result they desire. The Shia 60% majority status guarantees victory in most provinces. The Kurds are also content to vote in favor of the draft because its federalist approach preserves the quasi-independent status they have enjoyed under the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire agreement. But the Kurds are a bit skeptical of the vote only because an evolving Iraqi government could infringe on their self-governance and wealth. The substantial Kurdish population in eastern Turkey would like nothing better than to declare themselves part of an independent Kurdistan. Only the specter of Turkish military intervention keeps the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq apart.
Because the Sunni population withheld its vote in the January parliamentary election, the Kurds and Shia wrote a constitution that protects their interests and, to be fair, doesn’t cast out the Sunnis but also doesn’t give them an equal share of the nation’s oil wealth or legislative power. The Sunnis are crying foul, and the Shia and Kurds, understandably, are not about to toss the whole thing out because the Sunni minority — which had oppressed both Shia and Kurd unmercifully under Saddam — now choose to object to the product of a process they refused to participate in seriously.
It’s no use to complain that the draft constitution which Iraqis will vote on next Sunday is unfair to the Sunnis, or imperfectly federalist, or too inclusive of Islam. It is the product of a group of negotiators who are nothing like our Founding Fathers, who were a much more homogeneous group. And during their discussions they came to understand that if their differences were permitted to outweigh their common interests, and the individual states were — alone or in small groups — left to go their own way, they would not long be independent of whichever European kingdom chose to reconquer them. The Iraqi negotiators are bound by no such understanding. Iraq remains essentially a tribal society that could break apart, its pieces to be swallowed by Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. That is one of the principal dangers to Iraq’s future, and it will continue no matter what happens next Sunday. Like Woody Hayes’s forward pass, only three things can come out of this Iraqi referendum and two of them are bad.
The first, and worst, result would be for the referendum to fail to draw enough Sunni voters to clearly accept or reject it. The terrorists will move hell and earth to ensure this happens. If the recorded Sunni vote is well below 50% of their registered voters, regardless of the result, the terrorists will have won. The election will not be legitimated within the Sunni provinces, and should the Shia and Kurdish representatives in parliament choose to say the constitution is ratified despite the low turnout, the Sunnis may well conclude that their future is not bound to any Iraqi government.
Second, and almost as bad, is if the Sunni vote is substantial and the constitution ratified, but the vote is de-legitimized by the inevitable claims of fraud. There will be no need to prove the fraud, because the EUnuchs, the UN, and all the other usual suspects will line up to support Sunni claims that the constitution does not reflect the democratically expressed will of the Iraqi people. This problem could be severe enough to force putting off the scheduled December general election. If the December election is held regardless of the Sunni rejection, and the Sunnis again refuse to participate, Iraqi progress toward democracy will be set back for years and may never get back on track. Iraq’s temporary government will gain no permanent status (and denied a seat in the UN) and the terrorists will grow even stronger. The terrorists will claim the legitimacy that they have denied the democratic process, and the response from all Iraq’s Arab neighbors will be a silence that implicitly endorses that claim.
The third and most beneficial result will come if the Sunni vote is substantial and sufficient in percentage to reject the draft. In that case, Sunni participation in democracy will have proved its value. The Shia and Kurds would be forced to return to the negotiating table and redraft the constitution to compromise with more of the Sunni demands. The Sunnis cannot — on the basis of their 20% minority status — be entitled to control a one-third share of oil revenues outright, but their claim to it will have to be compromised on both sides, as will their other demands. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, Sunni participation in negotiations that lead to an overall compromise will strengthen the nascent Iraqi democracy against foreign intermeddling — which means terrorism — like nothing else can.
As this week goes on, there will be a brief and welcome respite from the media attention to the Miers nomination. A media feeding frenzy will grow around a chorus of punditry proclaiming that the success of the American overthrow of Saddam will stand or fall with the draft Iraqi constitution. The more media hype that surrounds the election, the more likely a bad result will obtain. But the result, ratification or rejection, will not be the final proof of anything.
The global war against terrorists and the nations that support them will have to go on regardless of what happens in the Iraqi elections. If Iraq can stand as a democracy, the terrorist nations will be weakened, but not decisively. If we stand down as the Iraqis stand up, the terrorist nations will only grow stronger. And the war in Iraq will go down in history as did the first Roman war against Carthage. We will have to go back to the Middle East, again and again, until the enemy and its ideology are truly defeated.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004).