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With Freedom Comes Politics

With Freedom Comes Politics

by Michael Rubin
Wall Street Journal
October 18, 2005

On Oct. 15, Iraqis demonstrated that their desire to determine the future through the ballot box was the rule rather than the exception. Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen; Sunnis, Shiites and Christians--all braved threats of violence to vote. The vast majority voted in favor of the constitution. But whatever their positions, Iraqis considered their decision carefully. The referendum campaign was active. Dueling commercials and newscasts sought to sway the Iraqi vote. Such is the nature of politics in a country no longer subject to state-controlled media.

Some read the constitution. They voted for or against federalism. Some marked their ballot on the basis of how closely they wished religion to be mixed with government. Others did not read the document but learned about it on television, in newspapers and even by text messaging, the latest medium employed by Iraqi politicians to reach constituents. Security, rather than content, was a determinant for some. They voted "yes" to avoid the chaos of failure and the prolongation of occupation.

The referendum capped a constitutional drafting process over which Western commentators and diplomats had been quick to panic. They misunderstand that with freedom comes politics. The same U.S. senators who debated the "nuclear option" for judicial nominees failed to recognize political brinkmanship among their Iraqi counterparts.

Many U.S. policy makers worry that disgruntled Sunnis may turn to violence if their demands aren't met. But there is no evidence to support the conventional wisdom that insurgent violence is tied to the political process. Insurgents have not put forward any platform. By denying the legitimacy of the state, pan-Islamic rhetoric is a greater affront to Iraqi nationalism than the presence of foreign troops on Iraqi soil. It is no accident that Iraqi Sunnis have started killing foreign jihadists.

Nevertheless, implying violence to be the result of demands not met is an old Middle East game. And in this game, Iraqi factions have played the Western media and policy makers like a fiddle. White House pressure, for example, led U.S. officials to amend the political process in order to augment the Sunni presence in the Constitutional Drafting Commission. Acceding to such demands is not without cost. Because Iraq's Sunni leaders are more Islamist than their Shiite counterparts, the increased Sunni presence eroded the rights of Iraqi women in the constitution's final draft.

Some critics still maintain that the "yes" vote may exacerbate conflict. What is needed is consensus, they say. On Sept. 26, for example, the International Crisis Group released a statement criticizing "a rushed constitutional process [that] has deepened rifts and hardened feelings. Without a strong U.S.-led initiative to assuage Sunni Arab concerns, the constitution is likely to fuel rather than dampen the insurgency." This NGO bemoaned the referendum as little more than an opportunity for Iraqis "to embrace a weak document that lacks consensus."

But consensus is not always possible. Though Sunnis are perhaps 15% of Iraq's population, they believe themselves to be 50%. Any agreement acceding to their inflated sense of power would automatically disenfranchise the remainder of the population. With the collapse of apartheid in 1994, white South Africans had to confront their minority status. Iraqi Sunnis must face the same reality. The process may be painful, but justice, democracy and long-term stability demand it continue.

Even without consensus, the constitution represents the type of social and political compromise lacking through the Arab world. Members of the Constitutional Drafting Commission and Iraqi power brokers spent months debating and canvassing constituents. Any politician living outside the U.S.-controlled Green Zone--Jalal Talabani, Abdul Aziz Hakim and Ahmad Chalabi, for example--had his parlor filled with Iraqis from different cities and of various ethnic and sectarian backgrounds until the early hours of morning. These Iraqi petitioners voiced interests and demands diametrically opposed to each other. Consensus was not always possible, but compromise was. As with the constitution, the nature of compromise is a result ideal to none but fair to all.

The referendum result again demonstrates that American policy- and opinion-makers are more pessimistic than are Iraqis. Part of the problem is that Pentagon officials and journalists alike chart Iraq's success through misguided metrics. Counting car bombs does not demonstrate progress or lack thereof in Iraq. Objective indicators show that Iraqis have confidence that did not exist prior to liberation.

According to an Aug. 16, 2002, commentary in the Guardian--a British newspaper that often opposes U.S. foreign policy--one in six Iraqis had fled their country under Saddam. Millions left because of war, dictatorship and sanctions. Today, several hundred thousand have returned; only the Christians still leave. If Iraq were as chaotic as the media implies, it would export refugees, not resettle them.

Other indicators suggest Iraqis have confidence in their future. The Iraqi dinar, freely traded in international currency markets, is stable.

When people fear for their future, they invest in gold; jewelry and coins can be sewn into clothes and smuggled out of the country. When people feel confident about the future, they buy real estate. Property prices have skyrocketed across Iraq. Decrepit houses in Sadr City, a Shiite slum on the outskirts of Baghdad, can easily cost $45,000. Houses in upper-middle-class districts of Mansour and Karrada can cost more than 20 times that. Restaurant owners spend $50,000 on top-of-the-line generators to keep open despite the frequent blackouts. In September 2005, there were 40 buildings nine stories or higher under construction in the Kurdish city of Sulaymani. Five years ago, there were none. Iraqis would not spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on real estate if they weren't confident that the law would protect their investment.

Iraqis now see the fruit of foreign investment. A year ago in Baghdad, Iraqis drank water and soft drinks imported from neighboring countries. Now they drink water bottled in plants scattered across Iraq. When I visited a Baghdad computer shop last spring, my hosts handed me a can of Pepsi. An Arabic banner across the can announced, "The only soft drink manufactured in Iraq." In August, a Coca-Cola executive in Istanbul told me their Baghdad operation is not far behind. Turkish investors in partnership with local Iraqis have built modern hotels in Basra.

Cameras and reporters do not lie, but they do not always give a full perspective. Political brinkmanship devoid of context breeds panic. Beheadings and blood sell copy, but do not accurately reflect Iraq. Political milestones give a glimpse of the often-unreported determination that Iraqis and longtime visitors see daily. Bombings and body bags are tragic. But they do not reflect failure. Rather, they represent the sacrifice that both Iraqis and Americans have made for security and democracy. The referendum, refugee return, real estate and investment show much more accurately--and objectively--Iraq's slow but steady progress.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

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