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Feldman: U.S. Must Not Leave Iraq Before Security Is Ensured, Hopes Sunni Political Involvement May Reduce Insurgency

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 26, 2005

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Noah Feldman, an expert on Islam and democracy, and a former constitutional adviser in Baghdad, says the fact that Sunnis are expressing more interest in elections and politics is “definitely a good thing.” But he says that “the $64,000 question” is whether the Sunni leadership will be able to curb the insurgent violence, carried out in part by former Sunni Baathist officials.

Feldman also says it will take time for real democracy to take hold in Iraq, and it is critical for the United States to stay the course as long as needed. “Until there is that kind of stability and security in Iraq, until the Iraqi military is capable of defending itself and defending the country, until there is a police force that is capable of policing and keeping the peace, the United States really can’t—again consistent with its interests and values—simply say we made a mistake in Iraq, too bad, now we’re going home.”

Feldman, professor of law at New York University Law School, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on October 26, 2005. 

The results of the Iraqi constitutional referendum have just come out. As expected, it passed overwhelmingly in Shiite and Kurdish areas, but in the Sunni populated areas, it was rejected by more than two-thirds in two provinces and barely squeaked by. In other words, a majority opposed it in the third province, but it didn’t get the two-thirds needed to block it, so therefore the constitution was ratified. What do you make of these results?

Well, the first and most significant fact is that there was some significant amount of Sunni participation in the referendum. There wasn’t an overarching boycott, and that’s good news. Because the more Sunnis vote, the more we are moving in the direction of elections being recognized as a crucial part of political practice. That said, the fact so many Sunnis voted “no” but were unable to reach the margin necessary to shoot down the constitution is cause for serious concern. If the lessons Sunnis take away is that “we almost made it this time, and if we come out and vote next time we may be able to really change the balance of power,” then that’s great—that’s the lesson you would want them to learn. If, on the other hand, the lesson they take away is that as a minority you can run in elections and still not have very much impact that would obviously be much more worrisome.

Today, following up on the announcement of the referendum results, three parties—the Iraqi People’s Gathering, the Iraqi Islamic Party, and the Iraqi National Dialogue—have come together in an alliance pledged to participate in the December 15 elections for the new national assembly to get the Sunni point of view across. I assume that’s a good thing?

It’s definitely a good thing. I say that not because I particularly like their platform but because it suggests we’re moving toward the election of a representative and legitimate group of Sunnis that can speak on behalf of the Sunni community and thereby eventually serve as a bridge to at least some of the more reasonable people who are involved in the insurgency. So, if we get those people showing up with a big Sunni turnout in the next set of elections that would be fantastic. It’s not the end of the game by any stretch, but it’s an important step toward making politics a regular part of how you express your perspective in Iraq.

Now, let’s take into account what’s in the constitution and what the Sunnis don’t like about it. What would be the Sunni platform?

The main Sunni concerns have been the question of federalism: To what extent can regions be formed, very powerful regions be formed. So, one program, one thing they’ve been interested in is trying to avoid the possibility of a mega-Shiite region with nine of Iraq’s eighteen provinces belonging to it. Another major concern has been de-Baathification. Many Sunnis, especially political elites who may themselves be barred from office under de-Baathification provisions, are concerned that de-Baathification is designed to punish Sunnis to a great extent, and they want to see a scaling back of the powers of the de-Baathification commission. And last but not least, Sunnis—for the most part although they’re not unequivocal on this—have been talking about timetables for a U.S. withdrawal. And I think that’s going to be a recurrent issue in the Sunni areas where there is a great deal more resentment toward the United States even than there is in Shiite areas.

Now, what is the relationship—and this comes to the guts of the security situation—between the Sunni leadership and the insurgents?

At present, I don’t think anyone can give a definitively correct answer to that question because the insurgency itself has to be at least bifurcated, in terms of at least two parts. One part is the sort of ex-military, ex-Baathist Iraqi domestic part of the insurgency that has seen itself as behaving in a very sophisticated and strategic way with the aim of maximizing the Sunni power and, if at all possible, forcing U.S. withdrawal under conditions that would put Sunnis in a better position than they presently are in the society.

The other half of the insurgency—and I don’t mean to say they’re of equal size—is a jihadi—perspective insurgency that’s got some local Iraqis but has a substantial number of foreigners participating in it. And it does not have an interest in the long run of enhancing Sunni power. Its goal is to keep the United States present in Iraq to extend the jihad to a global scale eventually to defeat the United States and ultimately, in a highly theoretical way, once the United States is kicked out to establish the rule of some sort of Islamic Sunni-dominated state in the country. But that obviously is quite speculative, even from their perspective. That’s sort of their pie-in-the-sky, best-case scenario.

Are there Sunni and Shiites and Kurds who get along with each other? They’re all politicians I guess. Can they sit down at a table and actually carve out compromises?

There is no doubt some of the politicians—in the case of the Sunnis, they have mostly been unelected politician—who are able to negotiate outcomes in ways that serve the interests of the different players. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. So I think the first key point to have in mind is that what we need are the Sunni elites, who have done some negotiating already, to be able to speak on behalf of the more moderate or reasonable side of the insurgency. If they can do that—since these guys are people who know how to negotiate and know how to cut deals—it may be possible to cut some deals that will amount to an emergence of a national pact between Shiites and Sunnis. So there are people who are capable of negotiating, but what we don’t know so far is whether those who are going to negotiate on the Sunnis’ behalf can deliver some component of the insurgency as one of their guarantees. That’s really the $64,000 question.

Now, the original election for the national assembly back in January was proportional representation on national tickets, which gave the Shiites—because they were the main parties voting—very large majorities besides the Kurds. The next election, I gather, is by province or district?

It’s going to be province-based. We’re not going to have a proportional representation system used in the winter elections but a modified province-based approach that will encourage the likelihood of some Sunnis being elected.

So you can expect in the three predominantly Sunni provinces there will be large number of Sunnis elected to the national legislature?

Some significant number, one can certainly expect, yes.

That will give them their voice in the parliament, if not a majority voice. Will there be efforts to form coalitions with the Kurds. If the Sunnis are now in this national parliament, they will be looking obviously to strike deals with parts of the Kurds, as well as the Shites, right?

Yes. I do think we can expect deal-making to take place across the political spectrum. But again, the question is not so much if it will be easy for Sunni elected politicians to cut deals, but the tapping down of the violence. Really the thing the Sunnis can really bring to the table as their bargaining chip is not just coalition-building in the government, although it will be that, but also substantial reductions in the insurgent violence and that’s what the Shiites and Kurds are looking for from them. Unless they can deliver that, the Shiites and the Kurds are going to be unwilling to cut deals with them.

You were in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) back in 2003. What was the thinking in that group that led to the banning of the Baathist Party and the banning from jobs of people who had been Baathists?

You mean the de-Baathification provisions? The de-Baathification provisions were produced in a combination of coalition-policy preference and the preference of primarily Iraqi exiles, primarily the former INC [Iraqi National Congress] folks. As ultimately formulated, despite the fact there was some internal discussion in the CPA, in which some people advocated a more moderate view, what was adopted was a fairly strong formulation in which quite a large number of people were disqualified of some government office of some form. Obviously, that’s not the only factor that’s led to the Sunni disaffection, but it’s a factor that at more than a symbolic level has been significant in that respect.

Also, I guess the other issue you hear about was the disbanding of the whole Iraqi Army. Is that in the same category?

I think that’s an even more important category. The disbanding of the army played an even more central role in the subsequent grave difficulty theUnited Stateshas had in reestablishing any kind of order. This is taking a long time in large part because we have to train and recreate a military from scratch. It’s a very long and difficult process. There was a reason for not doing that before; it was the concern that the army as preserved would eventually play a role in overturning the government sometime in the future. But I think that risk, though real, was a risk that had to be taken because the downside of abolishing the army was this problem of disorder, especially considering the small number of troops that we had. So you could have a lot of American troops and abolish the army, or you could have very few American troops, in which case you had to keep the army, but what you couldn’t do is what we did do, which was to have a very small number of American troops and abolish the army.

Who drove that decision to abolish the army? Was that [former CPA administrator] L. Paul Bremer’s idea?

I think the decision was made so early in Bremer’s term that it’s unlikely it would be reasonable to attribute the decision ultimately to him. I think that decision had much more of a Washington-based focus. The decision was made within the first two weeks of his arrival on the ground in Iraq.

And, of course, he and others have complained we didn’t have enough troops, and that’s self-evident now.

It’s been self-evident from day one in my view.

You were there in April of 2003. It must have been horrible seeing all the looting.

The aftermath of the looting was really incredibly depressing, but there was still a three or four month period during which there was no significant or organized insurgency. And that suggests there was a window of opportunity in which it would have been possible to consolidate control over the country to get services back up and running and generally establish some kind of order and that did not happen. I think the small number of U.S. troops took a while to be appreciated by the insurgents, but once the insurgency was in a position to realize what was going on, it was downhill from there.

You’ve made the point that Islam itself is not un-conducive to democracy. This administration, of course, has been pushing hard for democracy throughout the Middle East. Do you think if the Iraqi elections work out in December, we can begin to see something like democracy take hold in the region?

I think that it will be still too soon to speak of at the broader level. I think though that the production of democratic institutions that succeed is a very slow, piece-meal affair, it’s not achieved overnight, and it’s not achieved just by getting rid of undemocratic governments; nor is it achieved by just one or two elections. But each election inIraqthat garners significant participation and each move away from violence—which we have not yet seen in Iraq at all, but if we did see significant movement away from it—would be meaningful.

Each move in that direction is a step toward the possibility of the production of some reasonably democratic, reasonably stable state. And I think it’s a huge mistake to think any one milestone is going to tell us that we’re there. It’s going to take years. We’ll know if we’re not there if the violence continues.

Meanwhile, other countries in the region are watching very closely what’s going on inIraqand they’re wondering whether democratization is a viable strategy or whether the dangers of democratization, specifically in the form of radical instability, are worth the risk. So, if Iraq can begin to stabilize, that will be a lesson to democratizing individuals or governments that maybe democracy is not the end of the world, that you can have effective and functioning democracy in the region. But, if violence in Iraq continues, and even as elections go on, the message will be that you might be able to have a democracy, but it comes at such a degree of instability and loss of life and violence that it’s not worth taking the chance of democratizing.

So, over the next five years, what happens in Iraq will be hugely significant for the twenty-five-year process of seeing whether democracy is going to take root in the Middle East. I certainly continue to believe broader democratization is possible, but it has to be democratization that shows ordinary people that there’s something in it for them. And most ordinary people are not going to want democracy if it comes with an increased degree of violence in their daily lives.

Yesterday in Congress and elsewhere on the occasion of the recording of the 2000th U.S. military death in Iraq, there was a lot of speech-making about a failed policy and the need to get U.S. troops home as soon as possible. What do you think about that?

I was on Capitol Hill about a month ago and noticed that. One of the problems that always dogs U.S. foreign policy is the argument we’re too short term in our orientation to complete substantial projects; that because of the election cycle that is brewing right now, we have a short-term view of foreign policy instead of a long-term view. And it’s crucial if we’re going to undertake foreign-policy projects with any kind of ambition that we be able to maintain commitment to projects that we’ve begun. Now you may think the Iraq war was a terrible idea, a lot of people on Congress do. Even if that were the case, it doesn’t follow that the United States can, consistent with its own interests or values, walk away from a place like Iraq.

So, it’s all well and good to want to have a strategy to reduce the number of troops—obviously everyone wants that, myself included—but that has to come via the creation of a relatively stable situation in Iraq where peacekeeping troops from other countries can be brought in and our own troops could be reduced in numbers. Until there is that kind of stability and security in Iraq, until the Iraqi military is capable of defending itself and defending the country, until there is a police force that is capable of policing and keeping the peace, the United States really can’t, again consistent with its interests and values, simply say we made a mistake in Iraq, too bad, now we’re going home.

The costs locally will be a civil war; the civil war will spill over regionally, a lot of people will die, and it will be our fault for having taken a half-measure, not a full-measure. That’s not acceptable with respect to the prestige of the United States in the world, our capacity to get things done, and it’s certainly not acceptable from an ethical perspective because we were the ones who went into Iraq by choice; we did not have to go into Iraq and we did it, and we didn’t have to depose Saddam but we did it. So now we have a responsibility, a deep responsibility to the people in Iraq.

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