Full Sovereignty

June 2, 2004

The president has said that after June 30th Iraq will have “full sovereignty.” He has repeated the phrase to the American people and to the international community. But no one knows what “full sovereignty” means. When asked whether US troops would leave if requested to do so by the new government, the president said that they would work “in partnership.” Which means that no, they would not leave, and will not leave, until this administration is ready for them to leave.

That is not “full sovereignty.”

It is rather a contradiction to say that the Iraqis will have full sovereignty and that there will be elections in January of next year, followed by an interim government, followed by a constitution in the succeeding year, 2005. If the Iraqis were to be truly sovereign they would decide all that themselves.

We have offered to them a sovereignty to be exercised towards democracy as we in the West understand democracy, on a schedule which was, from the outset, tailored more to our elections than to Iraqi opinion or culture.

Were the Iraqis to be sovereign they might say, on July 1st, we are starting over; we intend a council of tribes, or a council of religions, and we will do this on our own time schedule, without US troops. You may go. They might even elect to have a civil war to determine who is strongest and therefore most able to govern. They might have pay offs and bribes and deals that stitch together the cloth of consensus in ways which are anathema to us but traditional to them. And would we allow this? And if we would not allow this, what does full sovereignty mean?

Law and authority have their roots in consent which leads most citizens, of any nation, to do what they do most of the day without violence. Consent is the strength of any government, totalitarian or democratic, and the absence of it is fatal. Consent is therefore the key to security in Iraq, and consent is what must be gained for Iraqi security to improve. Consent is what the new government does not yet have.

We have not yet been able to get consent for president Hamid Karzai whom we installed in Afghanistan. Although our troops can go anywhere in that country, Karzai cannot. His country is stitched together by bribes and war-lord truces. We could not get consent for Karzai by force of arms and in the same way we will not ever get consent for a government in Iraq by force of arms. Fallujah and Najaf have proved that. What remains to be seen, therefore, is whether the new leaders will find some way to gain that all-important consent by themselves.

This critical consent might once have been won by the idea of democracy but after a year of occupation the Americans—in the name of democracy—have thrown many thousands into Saddam’s prisons, have humiliated them sexually, and so permanently discredited the idea of democracy. It will not be “freedom” or “liberty” which buys consent this time.

Traditionally consent in the Middle East has been bought by wealth, or power, or guns. But none of these new leaders has any power, or wealth, or guns of his or her own. So where will this critical element come from?

The continued presence of US troops will certainly dissuade some from civil war. It might give the new leaders time enough to establish themselves, build reputations and networks of supporters in the villages, build political alliances. Consent will depend upon a hundred-hundred face-to-face meetings, a thousand deals and agreements between this leader and that policeman, between these oil people and those transportation people, between Shiias and Kurds, etc., a thousand meetings that no one in the West will ever attend.

George Bush has bet the whole game that these meetings will knit together a country. He has committed unimaginable treasure and lives to the gamble. He cannot now know now who, in the weeks and months to come, will meet with and side with whom. If he is lucky, this will, indeed, be a new era for the Middle East. If he has miscalculated, he will go down in history as the cocky son who acted against all odds trying to impose his culture on another culture, and who as a war leader who did not at all understand the odds against him.