Thirty months after the fall of Saddam Hussein there are signs that the intense interest Iraq had aroused at the time is waning fast. Opinion polls in the United States, Britain and Italy, the three members of the US-led coalition that account for 90 per cent of the troops present in Iraq, show that more than half of the population desire a speedy disengagement from an enterprise that seems to be going nowhere.
It is no use telling the Americans and their allies that history is not made at the rhythm required by evening television news bulletins and that transforming a despotic system into a democratic one takes time. We live in an age of quick results, of instant coffee and speedy gratification. The average attention span of international opinion on almost any issue does not exceed six month. Even the most pressing issues, including some that are supposed to threaten the very existence of the human species, do not succeed in holding the headlines for long.
As the Iraqis prepare to vote in tomorrow’s constitutional referendum it is important that they have lost much of the goodwill, and with it most of the interest aroused by their liberation in April 2003. Unless the new Iraqi leadership elite manages to put some order in its own house there is no guarantee that the rest of the world will remain interested in helping the country build a new future.
The sad truth is that the world can live with a failed Iraq. And the Iraqis should not delude themselves into believing that they are cut from a special cloth. The world is full of messy situations in more than 30 countries in almost all continents. Adding another one would not tip the balance one way or another.
As things stand today there are several certainties in Iraq.
First, Iraq has a unique chance to bury its despotic past because the machinery of oppression built over half a century has been shattered. The only way it can be rebuilt is if the country is plunged into anarchy, forcing a majority of Iraqis to accept another tyrant in the hope of buying security.
The second certainty is that the terrorists and their insurgent allies have no chance of imposing their will on the Iraqi people It is now clear that the insurgency lacks a popular base, even in the so-called Sunni Triangle. The danger is that the insurgency in Iraq could become a seeding ground for terrorism across the region. There is no better school for this type of warfare than actual fighting on the ground. Thus the thousands of Jihadists who have spent some time in Iraq could well act as viruses that contaminate other Arab states of the region in the years to come.
This is what happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in Algeria in the 1990s when both countries served as breeding grounds for Jihadist terror.
The third and final certainty is that, given good leadership, Iraq has the human and natural resources to build a new model in the region. If the region is ever to enter the age of globalisation and find a place in the international cultural and political mainstream, it can hope for no better pathfinder than Iraq.
Alongside those certainties, there are also two doubts.
The first is that the new Iraqi leadership may well prove to be unfit for bearing the burden that history and chance have transferred to its shoulders.
Some of the leaders who spent years in exile have brought with them some of the worst aspects of exile politics. Most have not succeeded in connecting with the population while some, as recent revelations indicate, have not resisted the temptation of filling their pockets and running away. The so-called de-Ba’athification programme, meanwhile, has deprived the country of the middle bureaucratic and administrative cadres needed to speed up the rebuilding of the state apparatus.
The second doubt that casts a shadow over the future of Iraq concerns the resolve of the international community, led by the US in this case, to stay the course. Iraq needs two or three more free and fair elections before its new democracy is fully institutionalised. That means that some level of international commitment, including a military contribution may be needed for another 10 to 12 years. There is little doubt that as long as President George W Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair are in power, the US and the UK will remain committed to Iraq. But the US and the UK are democracies in which, like all other democracies, the electorate can prove more fickle in changing its mind than any autocrat.
In the final analysis; however, it is the people of Iraq that have the final key to their own problem. If, as I think they will, they turn out en masse to vote tomorrow they would revive international interest in helping them rebuild their nation.
The proposed constitution is not ideal. But it certainly is the most democratic text offered to anyone in the region. Rejecting it in the hope of getting something better would be self-defeating at this point. As is often the case in history the best could prove the enemy of the good.
Contrary to a widespread belief opposition to the proposed constitution does not come solely from the Arab Sunnis. Many Kurds do not like the draft because it will lock them into a unified Iraq for the foreseeable future.
The truth, however, is that the Kurds of Iraq cannot have a better future outside a unified federal state.
There are also some Shi’ites who oppose the proposed draft because they favour a highly centralised state.
But such a model would not be acceptable to either the Kurds or the Arab Sunnis because a highly centralised state would be dominated by the Shi’ite majority, leaving little scope for the degree of pluralism and diversity that some degree of devolution offers. As for the more radical Arab Sunnis it is time they understood one simple fact: the old days of monopoly over political power are gone for good and any attempt at forcing a new minority rule on Iraq could only lead to its break-up. The only way for the Arab Sunnis to regain a respectable share of power in the new Iraq is an alliance with the Kurds and the secular Shi’ite parties in the newt parliament to be elected in December.
As the Iraqis line up to vote tomorrow, once again ignoring the threat of death issued by the Jiahdists, they should ponder one fact: their best bet is to build a system in which power is shared so widely as to make it impossible for any individual or group to impose his or its will on millions of powerless captives.