Iraq Expert: Don’t Expect New Political Plan for Iraq to Unfold Smoothly

Iraq Expert: Don’t Expect New Political Plan for Iraq to Unfold Smoothly

November 26, 2003 12:44 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

More on:


Thomas Carothers, director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the plan to turn over sovereignty to Iraqis on an accelerated basis is wise, given the political and security pressures. But he warns that “we can’t expect this to go smoothly.” He points out that the tasks awaiting the provisional government due to be chosen by June are daunting, and delays are inevitable.

He says the original plan— turning over sovereignty after a constitution was written and elections were held— was no longer feasible. Why? Pressures were too intense, he says, “from within Iraq, from the Arab world, and from the Europeans, to get sovereignty back to the Iraqis, and, in some ways, to hand the problem of Iraqi security back to the Iraqis.”

Carothers, a senior associate at Carnegie, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on November 25, 2003.

You and your colleague Marina Ottaway have written insightful studies on Iraq’s political future. What is your impression of the plan put forward by the Coalition Provisional Authority ( CPA) and the Iraqi Governing Council on November 15 for transferring sovereignty to Iraqis by next June?

They’ve reached agreement on a plan that represents a considerable change from the plan the CPA was operating under before. Earlier, L. Paul [Jerry] Bremer [III], the head of the CPA, said that the fundamental condition for the United States transferring sovereignty to Iraq was, “You guys have to write a constitution and we have to hold national elections.”

So, this plan represents a reversal because [U.S. officials are] now saying, “We will first create a provisional government to which we can transfer authority, and then that provisional government can in turn organize the writing of a constitution and organize the holding of national elections.” They have put sovereignty before the constitution and elections, rather than after.

Why did the CPA originally want to delay the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis?

It is a good question, because in Afghanistan we took the approach of transferring sovereignty quite early and putting off the writing of a constitution and the holding of elections. So it was a bit of a puzzle why the CPA decided on [a constitution and election] approach [in Iraq]. I think it was because, unlike in Afghanistan, in Iraq the Bush administration was really pushing hard the idea that we were there to promote democracy. What they wanted was the ability to transfer authority back to a government that is clearly democratic, i.e., has a democratic constitution behind it and has been elected, whereas [President] Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, although a decent and popular person, was not democratically chosen.

Why did the plan change?

There are basically a couple of reasons. It began to be clear that writing a constitution and organizing elections was going to take so long that it was going to be unsustainable because of the deteriorating, or at least troubled security, situation in Iraq. There is growing pressure— from within Iraq, the Arab world, and the Europeans— to get sovereignty back to the Iraqis, and in some ways to hand the problem of Iraqi security back to the Iraqis. We just didn’t feel we could wait long enough to let this other process unfold. So we’ve accelerated the sovereignty process out of security concerns, but this meant modifying our plans for the democratic process.

Now, under this plan there will be a transitional government in charge by next June?

Yes, it will be essentially a provisional government that will rule until a constitution is written and elections are held. This new government will not be elected but selected through town meetings in different parts of Iraq. At these meetings, representatives will be chosen for some kind of national commission, and this commission will choose the new government. It’s a fairly complicated process that is an attempt to create a kind of informal representative process in which delegates from around the country— about 200 of them— come together and choose a new government by next June. That government will then rule until late 2005.

What is the so-called fundamental law that is supposed to be written by the governing council in close consultation with the CPA and is due to be finished by next February?

Because of the decision to put off the writing of a constitution, you still need some legal framework to operate under as you carry out this process of town meetings and selection of the provisional government. [So,] the governing council by February will produce an interim law that will essentially be a statement of basic principles about political order. This interim law will be the framework that will be used to choose the provisional government.

The plan says that this fundamental law will set forth a “federal arrangement” for Iraq?

Yes, officials are trying to put down a marker saying, “We’re planning to have one Iraq. We’re planning on it being a federal country,” in which there will be some delegation of authority to the provinces, but leaving unsaid what the real bargain will be with, say, Kurdish autonomy. The intention appears to be to move toward a federal country, but not really work out the details yet. [Federalism] is such a decisive issue that it will have to be fleshed out in the constitution-writing process.

What are the problems and pitfalls we can expect in the next six to nine months?

The first one is fundamental law itself. It sounds uncontroversial, but is it uncontroversial to say, “A basic right will be gender equality?” Actually, that’s not uncontroversial. Things that will seem uncontroversial to us— we’ll say to the governing council, “Of course, you’re putting that in the basic law?”--may not be. Even the writing of the basic law isn’t going to be as easy as we might hope.

Secondly, this process of selection at town meetings sounds good. It appeals to American ideals. But if you go out to a region and gather the notables together to come up with a slate of delegates to this national commission, well, that might be easy, or it might not be. It depends on the region. If we go to some of the Sunni areas to do that, we may get some people going to that national commission we don’t like. What will our tolerance be for people who have political views we find antithetical to democratic principles? There is going to be a problem in choosing them.

And thirdly, the Iraqis are going to have to come together fairly quickly. They are to choose a provisional government by next June. What does it mean? Will they choose a president? Will they choose some ministers? It’s a little unclear what they are supposed to choose. Then, what if they don’t agree when they sit down to vote? Will there be a majority vote? What if there are some serious divisions and people walk out of the meeting? Any political process faces these problems, but given the aggravated situation in Iraq and the lack of experience of these different groups in working together, we can’t expect this to go smoothly. A further problem that has arisen is that the governing council itself is starting to say, “Hey, we don’t want to bow out next June and go away. What if we created a second level, a kind of senate, and we will [take on a role as unelected] ’wise people,’ to help advise on the process?” As soon as people accumulate some power, they don’t want to let go of it.

The governing council includes some Iraqi exiles, such as Ahmad Chalabi, who might not be selected for the provisional government.

Yes, they feel they are not going to do so well in a selection. They don’t have a real base in the society. So they are trying to cash in their chips now and lock in whatever powers they have accumulated. There is a lot of tension in this process. We are probably going to see some delays. The word “provisional” to Americans means a process with dispatch that will be done by 2005. In 1958, the Iraqis got a provisional constitution and they ended up using it for decades. Sometimes what’s provisional in one society for various reasons may stay in place for a much longer time than we might think. And so, although we may see problems in selecting this provisional government, the real problems start once it is selected next June because it then faces a fairly rapid timetable.

The government would consist of what kind of system?

It is not very clear. I am not sure if it is decided if there would be a single president and then a bunch of ministers, or a prime ministerial system. I am not sure the Iraqis are sure. That’s going to be a problem. Then this government has to oversee the writing of this constitution and then organize national elections. It has a huge task to do very quickly, and it is going to be under a lot of pressure because it is also going to be busy trying to get the security situation in the country nailed down, run the new army, run the new police services, and get the economy going.

Meanwhile, there will probably be at least some 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq?

Presumably, yes. Few people think the Iraqis can manage the security on their own. In fact, there is a good deal of concern that a new provisional government will be a natural target for those who oppose the occupation, as the governing council has been. This will make it hard for [members of the provisional government] to meet, hard for them to go out and talk to Iraqis, hard for them to do the kind of things we would hope a government would do. The governing council has shown that it is very isolated from the population because of the security situation. It is very hard for the members to go out and mix it up and talk with people.

And Bremer’s group is due to dissolve next year?

Yes. The CPA will be dissolved upon the creation of the provisional government. I suspect there will be a plan to have some American or coalition advisers to the new provisional government.

The constitution is supposed to be ratified by the middle of 2005?

Yes. The drafters are going to face three or four big issues, above all the territorial autonomy issue. You saw the op-ed article by [Council on Foreign Relations President Emeritus] Leslie Gelb today asking why there should be just one Iraq. This is a radical idea, implying we should give up on the idea of one nation. And there is the role of Islamic law. It affects the gender issue; it affects the economic program because of the issues of Islamic financing and banking; it affects family law; it affects contract disputes.

Are there many constitutions in the Arab world?

Yes. Egypt, for instance, has a constitution. Most of the regimes are constitutional regimes. A number of them, like the Egyptian one, take a middle-ground approach to the role of Islamic law, in which they will say that the law is rooted in Islam but is not the same as sharia [Islamic law]. It is actually a nuanced approach to law. I think people hope that would be an approach the Iraqis could adopt to [recognize] the desire of some of the Shiites to have some special status for Islamic law but [stop short of] making sharia the official law of the country.

Who’s drafting the constitution in Afghanistan?

A group of experts. There is always tension in a constitution-writing process between the desire to [restrict the drafters to] a small circle of people who have expertise and [the desire for] broader participation. What you really need is an expert group that has the ability to go out and consult with different social groups and then come back and incorporate those views. Imagine in the United States if we were rewriting our constitution from scratch, how interest groups would throw themselves into the process. It would be ferocious, and this is a fairly peaceful society where there is a lot of consensus about a lot of social issues.

Did the new plan come from the governing council or the United States?

I think the governing council began speaking up in September and October and saying to the CPA and to people in Washington, “You’ve got to give us more sovereignty, you’re trying to do everything yourself.” And we said, “That’s probably true.” But there was no rush to change. Then, when the security situation really began to cause a lot of problems, people began saying we had to build up Iraqi institutions and give the Iraqis more responsibility for security. And people in Iraq said, “How can we do that if we have no domestic institutions to run these things?” The security situation really drove this.

How much was driven by American politics?

Certainly, President Bush is facing a political situation in which he doesn’t want to walk into an election year with no clear plan for Iraq’s future. This way, there will be a clear timetable, a turnover next June before [the U.S. presidential] election, [and the president] will [be able to] say there is now an Iraqi government and the Iraqis are committed to elections. That’s the scenario the White House wants to see next June.

So summing up, is the new plan a good idea?

Yes, I think it was a good idea to agree to transfer sovereignty to Iraqis before a full constitution and elections. On the other hand, the process which they have chosen is still not very democratic and will still have trouble gaining legitimacy in Iraq, because the [individuals put in power] will be chosen by a few rather than elected. It would have been better to try to preserve at least some element of elections, although it may be that the security situation is just too difficult to have any. This around-the-country selection process may be the best they could do under the circumstances.

More on:



Top Stories on CFR


Israel has made eliminating the threat from the Gaza-based militant group a central war aim, but it’s not entirely clear at what point that condition will be met.  


Outright seizure of the Russian Central Bank’s hundreds of billions in frozen assets is currently off the table, but it is still possible to obtain large sums for Ukraine from the interest income on these assets.