The Magazine

Reconcilable Differences

The Iraqi parliament behaves like a bunch of politicians.

Nov 12, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 09 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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As the violence recedes, leaders in all the contending Iraqi communities will naturally seek to address their internal differences. Our interest in the outcome is limited: As long as the Iraqis are committed to the principle of resolving their differences through a political process rather than violence, and as long as any settlement they reach is sufficiently fair so as not to reignite the violence, then our interests will have been secured. The Iraqis can continue to debate the oil law, provincial rights, federalism, and so on for decades (as Americans have debated civil rights, Social Security, immigration, health care, and states rights) with no harm to our interests, assuming their debates are channeled through a political process. And this is almost certainly what will happen. Even if the current Iraqi parliament passed all the benchmark legislation Americans desire tomorrow, Iraqis would continue to debate, argue, adjust, and press for reforms on these key issues, probably for generations. That is what a self-governing people does.

We therefore made an enormous mistake--one in which the Bush administration was complicit when it promulgated the benchmarks in 2006--by defining success as the resolution of Iraq's internal problems, rather than as the creation of a political system within which Iraqis could pursue their struggles peacefully.

Many believe that as long as major grievances remain, violence will persist. More likely, a point will be reached where contending groups are convinced that they will suffer more than they will benefit from resorting to force. At that point, political players will either moderate their objectives or find ways of pursuing them peacefully, or both. Which is what is happening among Iraq's Sunni Arabs today. Where previously Sunni hotheads believed that an alliance with terrorists would give them the leverage to insist upon a maximalist political solution, now local leaders, including leading sheikhs, recognize that the violence is hurting them far more than it is helping them, and that they must reduce their demands and find peaceful ways to pursue them.

There is still a long way to go. Shia extremists inside and outside the government continue to see force as a way to change the situation in their favor and so shape the ultimate political contest to suit them. The danger remains that these extremists will antagonize the Sunnis into renewed violence. More likely, outside actors with an interest in stirring trouble in Iraq will find their footing once again and either prevent the situation from stabilizing or destabilize it once it has.

No doubt the difficulty of resolving political issues will also seem to some extremists an opening to gain leverage by use of force. There are likely to be spikes in violence in the coming years, as outside actors and hardcore extremists maneuver and resist final defeat. The passage of legislation now would not change that. Any meaningful legislation would be a product of compromise, and it is the nature of extremists to reject compromise.

What matters more than any benchmark laws, then, is whether Iraqis believe they must work to resolve their differences through a political process and that they cannot resort to force because doing so would hurt their cause. That is the essence of the reconciliation we seek. The acceptance of a political process as the only legitimate means of resolving internal differences cannot be measured by any legislative checklist, but it is the measure that actually counts.

Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.