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Iraq Expert Ottaway: 'Very Hard to Find a Formula For Putting the Country Back Together'

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Marina Ottaway, senior associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Democracy and Rule of Law Project
November 6, 2003

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Marina S. Ottaway, a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the United States, as the occupying power in Iraq, is struggling to find an orderly and democratic process to return sovereignty to the Iraqis.

Ottaway, the co-author with Thomas Carothers of an October 2003 report, The Right Road to Sovereignty in Iraq, lays out the three approaches she says are under consideration. One is to move gradually toward elections for a constituent assembly that would draft a constitution; this slow-paced process may dissatisfy impatient Iraqis and Bush administration officials looking ahead to the November 2004 election. A second approach calls for a temporary constitution that would authorize elections for a constituent assembly, which would create a government of national reconciliation. The third option: avoid elections for the time being and transfer power to an unelected government that would draft a constitution. “One of the problems of elections in post-conflict situations,” she cautions, “is that they are enormously divisive.”

A “huge problem,” Ottaway adds, is finding a leader capable of bringing together all the competing strains of Iraqi society. She was interviewed on November 6, 2003, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org.

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What are the chances for democracy in Iraq?

In the short term, they are not very good. The first question that needs to be asked is not whether we can bring democracy to Iraq, but whether we can bring stability to Iraq. Until we find a way to stabilize that country, there is no point in talking about democracy. And when I talk about stability, I am talking about two things. One is the security situation, which is certainly alarming. But even more [important], I am talking about whether we can find a way of putting the pieces of Iraq back together in a political system that can function. There has never been a period in the history of Iraq when the country has been stable, except under strong control from the top. It’s going to be very hard to find a formula for putting the country back together.

Federalization has been one of the proposed solutions. Is that a workable approach?

Let me start with an overview of what is going on. When I first began to listen to briefings in Washington on the future reconstruction of Iraq— and this was before the war started— the original plan was to have a constitution written by American experts. That would have been a federal constitution written along the lines of the American Constitution. That idea was abandoned very quickly as being untenable.

Why was it untenable?

Because it was quite clear that the Iraqis would not accept a constitution written from the outside and, in particular, they would not accept a federal constitution. While many Iraqis agree that a federal constitution would be a very good idea, they totally disagree among themselves on how the federation should be structured.

For example, the Kurds have already written a draft constitution for Iraq. They wrote it before the war. That constitution says that Iraq is a federal state composed of two states— an Arab state and a Kurdish state. That is not acceptable to anybody else. Now, I’m not saying that the Kurds will never agree to anything except their own constitution. Their starting point, however, is very far from the starting point of some of the [Iraqi] exiles, who think of federalism as a U.S.-style federation, where essentially you have territorial divisions but freedom of travel and residency. In the United States, you can live in New York and go to California and become a Californian, and all you have to do is pay local taxes. In the view of the federation that the Kurds are setting forth, if you are a Kurd, you are a Kurd. It does not matter where you live, you will always belong to the Kurdish state. I have not seen any statements by the Shiites specifically concerning federation, but I would be very surprised if there were not the same [kind of] concept that [established a Shiite state for Shiites exclusively.]

There has been talk of three distinct areas— a Kurdish area in the north, the Sunni area in the center, and the Shiites in the south.

Yes, that idea has been set forth, but it remains to be seen to whom it is acceptable. For example, the Turkish minority in the Kurdish area and the Chaldean [Christian] minorities are already screaming bloody murder at the idea of a Kurdish state. They say they will not be protected, and so on. I am not saying that Iraq cannot ever be a federation. What I am saying is that the possibility of U.S. experts writing a federal constitution in a way that will satisfy people in Iraq is very, very unlikely. And that is why that idea was quickly abandoned.

Then the question arose, who is going to write a constitution? There are two major competing views on the table. One is that you’ll have a constitutional commission of sorts— a group of experts would be picked and they would write the constitution. And then there is the view that the Shiites in particular are pushing: an elected constituent assembly [to draft a constitution]. The Shiites prefer this because there are more Shiites than any other group in Iraq [they make up roughly 60 percent of the population] and, therefore, the Shiites would dominate [the assembly]. This alarms everyone else. But certain Shiite groups are adamant on this point.

The Shiites would probably form the majority of a constituent assembly chosen by election, but the Shiites are not a unified group. There are secular Shiites, and there are followers of various clerics: some are fairly moderate, others are more extreme. If we could organize a real, reasonably free election for a constituent assembly, probably there would not be a monolithic Shiite vote.

The other point that needs to be kept in mind is that even if the Shiites were to vote as a bloc, 60 percent of the constituent assembly would not be enough to enact a constitution. Constitutions are always enacted by qualified majorities of two-thirds or three-fourths of the vote. That means every group would be forced to negotiate and compromise.

The problem with that scenario is that there is no guarantee that it will work. People can negotiate for a very long time without reaching agreement. But even if it works, it is bound to take a very long time. Writing a constitution is not a technical exercise. It is negotiating a political pact. That’s not going to be done quickly. So, from the American point of view, a process that entails a long negotiation, either in an elected constituent assembly or a constitutional commission of sorts, is problematic because the Bush administration needs a government in Iraq well before the presidential elections of next November.

Is there likely to be a government in Iraq by next November?

I am beginning to hear some discussion that perhaps this government should not be an elected government. I cannot say this will happen; I cannot say the Bush administration has made a decision on that point. If you listened to Bush’s speech on democracy, you ask yourself how he could give a speech of that sort and then turn around and say the first government in Iraq will not be an elected one. But I repeat, I do hear discussions along those lines.

Could a constitution be drafted by something other than an elected constituent assembly in Iraq?

Sure, it has been done in other countries. There are other processes. You can have an appointed commission. It could still take a long time to decide anything, even who would serve on the commission. In October, the Iraqi Governing Council had appointed a commission that was supposed to report back on how the constitution would be written and what process would be followed. This group came back and said it could not reach an agreement, not on the constitution itself, but on the process for writing one. It said it would take at least two years to do it.

There has been a great deal of discussion about the formation of new Iraqi military and police forces. Is it a good idea to put more emphasis on establishing this Iraqi militia?

There are two sides to “stability.” There is the agreement among the political groups and then there is the ongoing fight between the occupation forces and their enemies. Let’s stay with the question of cementing the physical security of the country, rather than the political stability. There, I think it is inevitable that there has to be an increase in the Iraqi role. What disturbs me are the figures that are being released by the administration on the training of Iraqi forces, civil defense forces, and so on. It is extremely worrisome. What is happening is that about a month ago, a group of people from various think tanks were taken on a trip to Iraq. And the figures they were given in all the briefings they had in Baghdad was that the United States had trained about 35,000 people, and they were speeding up the process and were cutting the training for police from eight weeks, which is generally considered to be the minimum, to six weeks, because they really needed to accelerate the process.

The figures they are now discussing are about double what they were a month ago. They can’t have trained that many people. The United States may be relying on militias that have not been trained. Yes, we have to train more people, but it is not very clear at this moment what we are really doing. Are we training people well or are we unleashing on the country half-trained forces that could become a problem in themselves?

And your second point about political stability?

That eventually depends on whether the different groups in Iraq find a modus vivendi among themselves. If the Shiites and Sunnis start fighting with each other, if the Kurds feel their position in the new Iraq is not safeguarded, then the country is never going to settle down. The problem of the lack of security is due to the presence of the remnants of the old regime, al Qaeda elements, the bandits that arise in any postwar situation, and other reasons we may not understand. In addition, there is an intrinsically unstable political situation there.

Isn’t one of the problems that there is no Hamid Karzai in Iraq, as there was in Afghanistan, someone the various political forces could rally behind?

Right. Certainly, the United States chose from the beginning a very different approach in Iraq [than what] was chosen in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the United States not only gave a significant role to the United Nations but Afghanistan never lost its sovereignty. It remained a sovereign country with its own government, although it was a provisional government. The United States in Afghanistan chose to have an Afghan government in place, but then to move slowly to make the government a really elected one. The Loya Jirga process [a meeting of elders who picked Karzai as president] was something short of full elections. In Iraq, the United States took over the sovereignty by occupying the country. And then there will be a big bang, we’ll have an election, and then a government. That’s a dangerous approach. But we cannot undo it. It is unthinkable to go back to the Afghan approach at this point. The Iraqis are getting very impatient.

Do you think there will have to be an election soon?

There are only three ways of putting together this new government. One is to stick to the idea that Secretary of State Colin Powell has expressed recently: You enact a constitution, you have it approved by a referendum, and you then move to an election. But the problem is, it will take far too long to satisfy either the growing impatience of the Iraqi political class or the needs of the Bush administration. That’s why I think there is a lot of rethinking of that process. A second possible approach— which is the one which Thomas Carothers and I set forth in our report on the reconstruction of Iraq— would be the idea of having a two-step process. In other words, rather than trying to write a final constitution for Iraq, simply write, now, an interim constitution that would just serve to elect a constituent assembly. The only purpose of that constitution would be to elect this assembly, which will form a government of reconciliation. It will allow Iraqis to regain sovereignty but on a temporary basis until the full constitution is enacted. I think this is a possibility.

Who would write the temporary constitution?

It would be done under the leadership of the Iraqi Governing Council, perhaps an enlarged council.

Was there anything similar to this done after World War II, for instance?

There is one interesting example, that of Italy. It had a first election under a revised version of an old constitution, and that was an election for a constituent assembly. That constituent assembly formed a government of national reconciliation and, two years later, it enacted a constitution and then the country had parliamentary elections and the formation of a government. That worked quite well, essentially because it started the democratic process and gave the country time to settle down.

One of the problems of elections in post-conflict situations is that they are enormously divisive. Elections produce winners and losers. Unless there is some agreement in the country on the rules of the game and unless there is some confidence among all the participants that, if they lose this election, they are not out of power once and for all— because they might win the next election— elections can cause real problems. We have seen this in some of the elections in the 1990s that the international community sponsored. The elections in Cambodia under U.N. supervision did not reflect the military balance of power in the country and were reversed. The elections in Angola that were organized by international powers were not respected by the parties. And then you have other examples, such as Bosnia, where, after the Dayton agreement, everyone pressed for elections as soon as possible, and all they achieved was a reconfirmation of the power of all the ultranationalist groups.

And the third possibility?

There is one other idea that I alluded to earlier and that cannot be totally dismissed. That is the option of transferring sovereignty to a non-elected government, perhaps an enlarged governing council.

Do you think Iraq will end up with something akin to a presidential system or a more traditional parliamentary system?

If Iraq were to choose a parliamentary system, it would be the first country in the entire Arab world to do so. I think the chances of that are very, very slim. All Arab countries are used to a monarchy or a strong leadership figure. None of the Arab countries has chosen a parliamentary system, even if in many ways it would be desirable.

Then some leader will have to be found who can pull together these strong competing strains in the country.

Yes. That’s a huge problem.

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