Sunni Set-Asides?

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The Bush administration may still be shy about admitting it, but it has finally come to the realization that, perhaps, the only way to momentarily resolve its Sunni problem in the Iraqi election is to set aside a certain number of seats for Sunnis, even if they receive fewer votes than rival non-Sunni candidates. The idea is to provide Sunnis with a presence in the post-elections parliament, despite a probable boycott by many leading groups, so the community is not marginalized in a new Iraq, and so the new political system has broad legitimacy.

The idea of institutional set-asides for a religious group remains controversial in Washington, but as I argued in a recent Reason piece, it can be a fairly enlightened formula for a communally divided society, such as Lebanon for instance. It's never ideal, yes, but the ensuing tendency to compromise can also generate more democratic political behavior than where the state is strong and might be tempted to suffocate its diverse constituencies through the power of its institutions (especially the army).

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  1. As it is, the Iraqi Interim Constitution already provides that no law can violate the “universal tenets” of Islam, which include slavery, a prohibition against collecting interest, persecution of all Nonmuslims. Fanatics know they won’t be punished for any church burnings, murders, beatings, or other crimes they commit against Nonmuslims. There’s mandatory Muslim prayer in the socialized school system Bush’s CPA created and the Iraqi Interim Government is now operating.
    Besides, setting aside seats in the legislature would likelier lead to more violence than otherwise. It would agitate Shiites and reinforce expectations that the American and Iraqi governments will cave in when faced with violence. Wahhabists and a lot of other Sunni extremists don’t feel any affinity for Sunni’s who aren’t a member of their own sect, and therefore wouldn’t be pleased unless they were convinced the bean counting put members of their own particular version of Sunnism in office.

  2. Michael Young lives in Lebanon, right?
    How can he be such a legalist, when anarchy is why Lebanon is doing as well as it is?
    If arranging deck chairs on the Titanic seems silly, Michael seems to want to rearrange deck chairs in the funnel of a tornado.

  3. Iraq (as well as the rest of the Middle East) has been a shithole for a long time and will not easily lose that status.

    While the Wahabbists may only stand for their kind in office, one might assume that they would be (deservingly) kept in their place by the (slightly) more moderate Sunni majority.

    I don’t know why they don’t just make 3 seperate fucking countries, one for the Kurds, one for the Shiites, and one for the Sunnis. War might break out between them, but it’d be less likely than if they were all forced to coexist, no?

    I don’t know what the solution is, but Islam can be (and seems to be mostly) interpreted in a very twisted manner and as long as people are ingrained with hate and intolerance from birth there shall be no peace.

  4. I don’t know why they don’t just make 3 seperate fucking countries, one for the Kurds, one for the Shiites, and one for the Sunnis. War might break out between them, but it’d be less likely than if they were all forced to coexist, no?

    The fact is that most of the people in those groups identify themselves as Iraqis or as Muslims before they identify themselves as specifically part of one smaller group. They don’t really want to break the country up; it’s not a matter of being forced together. This is particularly true for the Iraqi Sunnis and Shia. The Kurds are the only ones who have a significant separatist element in their society (though I’m not sure if it’s a majority), and creating an independent Kurdistan would piss off Turkey.

    There’s also the matter of some parts of Iraq (Mosul, Baghdad) being significantly multi-ethnic. You’d have a tough time splitting things in three without even more violence.

  5. You’d have a tough time splitting things in three without even more violence.

    That may be the best reason of all for foreign powers to think carefully before dividing a country.

    However, strict vertical separation of powers (between national and regional/provincial/local/whatever-term-you-prefer authorities) would be a good idea.

    As to setting aside a quota of representation for Sunnis:

    I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, well, I think the arguments against quotas are pretty well known on this forum. Agree or disagree, at least you know the arguments so I don’t need to recite them all again.

    On the other hand, the US found it useful to guarantee every state a certain degree of representation via the US Senate. I know, there’s a different between states and religious groups, but maybe it makes sense to work from the pre-existing societal divisions and guarantee each section of society at least a certain amount of representation.

    From some perspectives it might not be fair. From other perspectives it might be eminently fair. Either way, it keeps the peace.

  6. This whole discussion is predicated on the notion that any national government of Iraq will be seen as a legitimate entity; that holding seats in this body will mean something to society at large. I’ve yet to be convinced that this will be case.

  7. It seems to me people assume that the U.S. has the authority (and more importantly the power) to decide the fate of Iraq. What Americans want is based on our own ‘feelings’ of what is ‘right’.
    Is it then hypocritical we complain that Iran and other countries dare to ‘interfere’ with the elections?

  8. Maybe I’ll be wrong, but given the fact that those Sunni set-asides will inevitably come at the expense of the Shi’as, it’s difficult to see how this is going to be a net benefit in terms of stability. Maybe if this had been the plan from the beginning it would have been OK, but coming at this late a date, it’s a pretty obvious attempt to block Shi’as from gaining control of the new Iraqi government. I think the US will now be lucky simply if the *Shi’as* don’t decide to boycott the election in retaliation.

  9. No dude, the Shia’s will show in force, they understand the meaning of the elections. They are the reason we can’t postpone the election, even thought the Sunni arabs, and the kurds really really want it postponed.

  10. Limited government makes it so the question of who controls the government is less critical and less divisive.

    Also, religious institutional set-asides will inevitably lead to charges of foul play and will call into question the legitimacy of the election and engender hostility. Instead, why not have three separate nations? One for the Sunnis in the north, one for the Shia in the south, and one for the Kurds in the northeast part of Iraq where those folks live. Of course, all of this should be up to the Iraqis and not the US government.

  11. I agree, Rick. Representation doesn’t work. The best solution is to decentralize as much power as possible to the local level that Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish (not to mention Chaldean) communities are running their own affairs. Then they won’t have to worry about whether the 3-piece-suited bastard in Baghdad taking orders from the IMF and signing an IP treaty written by Jack Valenti goes to the same church they do.

  12. This proposition smells like the three-fifths compromise to me.

    I can imagine Kurds and Shia complaining of Sunni power much like people in the North complained of slave power having elected President Jefferson.

    I don’t think a ghost block is likely to reinforce the legitimacy of Iraqi Democracy.

  13. Ken-

    Did equal Senate representation of Delaware and Virginia (small and large) undermine the legitimacy of the US Constitution, or was it necessary to ensure stability?

    I know, there’s a difference between states and religious groups, but you have to work with the pre-existing divions when trying to forge consensus.

    And I do agree with Kevin that decentralization is important. But to the extent that a national government exists, some sort of consensus will be necessary, and ensuring that the majority has to share power is sometimes necessary.

  14. “Did equal Senate representation of Delaware and Virginia (small and large) undermine the legitimacy of the US Constitution, or was it necessary to ensure stability?”

    Equal representation is one thing; apportioning seats in a representative body to account for people who didn’t vote is another. The three-fifths compromise led to a bloody civil war, not stability.

    Legitimacy isn’t a problem just among the Sunni; I’m not convinced the election has much legitimacy among the other parties either. The Kurds function independently now; I’m not real clear on what they gain by joining a government dominated by Shia. I’m not sure I understand what Shia groups get for their participation; without a democracy they would likely run the areas in which they predominate–sans compromise.

    We seem to be getting it all backwards–al-Sistani doesn’t need the legitimacy of a U.S. orchestrated election; the election needs al-Sistani to lend it legitimacy.

    The election looks like a propaganda exercise to me–we’re building a Potemkin democracy. We might be able to bug out or justify staying indefinitely if there were a “democracy” to leave behind or defend. The sooner there’s an election, the sooner al-Sistani’s voice become even more important. The sooner there’s an election, the sooner the Kurds can go about their business.

    Short term, it makes sense, but I don’t see what the Sunni, the Kurds or the Shia have to gain from pluralistic Democracy in the long run. And in the long run, I don’t see what good a ghost block does for legitimate pluralistic democracy either.

  15. Equal representation is one thing; apportioning seats in a representative body to account for people who didn’t vote is another. The three-fifths compromise led to a bloody civil war, not stability.

    Very good point!

  16. The problem with deviding Iraq into three different countries, is that it is seen to inevitably lead to war. There is much disagreement on the teritiory that the three groups should own.

    Iran will meddle with the Shia’s, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria will meddle with the Sunni’s. And Turkey and Iran will not be happy at all with a seperate Kurdish country. The terrain argued upon is the oil fields in Kirkuk, and such.

    Also they all identify themselves as Iraqis now. I personally sympathise mostly with the Kurds, they are the most pro-American, and they are the most capable of having an independant state. But if they are their own state we might end up with another Israel in the middle east.

  17. Which outcome ultimately serves best the interests of the US?

    A stable, independent Iraq with power shared proportionally among the Kurds, Sunni, and Shia. Probably a Swiss-like bicameral confederation – with tribes in the place of cantons.

    Which outcome ultimately serves best the interests of the present US administration?

    A client-state dictatorship, with a great degree of Kurdish autonomy, a rubber-stamp parliament, and a pliant reformed-Baathist administration (Allawi) to keep everyone in line.

    For the present US administration, the worst possible outcomes would be 1) a truly free, independent Iraq, 2) a Shi’ite-governed Iraq.

    I am absolutely convinced that the sole driving force behind this war was oil. “Freeing the Iraqi people from tyranny” and “democracy” were advertising gimmicks to convince a gullible American public to allow the Bush administration to invest hundreds of billions of dollars and sacrifice tens of thousands of human lives. I realise they’re all incompetent, and that the chance of this investment coming to fruition are pretty slim. But you’ll have thrown a lot more good money (and lives) after bad before this administration puts Iraq into chapter-11 receivership.

    59,278,376 idiots.

  18. “This whole discussion is predicated on the notion that any national government of Iraq will be seen as a legitimate entity; that holding seats in this body will mean something to society at large. I’ve yet to be convinced that this will be case.”

    No Iraqi national government will ever be seen as legitimate? GG, are you expressing a belief that Iraq would more naturally be three or more countries, or are you saying that legitimate government is an impossible result of externally imposed conditions?

  19. The election looks like a propaganda exercise to me–we’re building a Potemkin democracy.

    while i don’t know, mr schultz, if i can muster that level of skepticism — the american administration managing this thing is, after all, a group of true believers — i will say that this is the fundamental problem with exporting ideas like they were grain.

    it works much better when the society produces the ideas — as locke was produced by 1688 — than the other way round. as it is, we’re pounding round pegs into square holes or, worse, where there are no holes.

  20. Is the probability of a legitimate democracy in Iraq greater or less than it was before?

    Did Saddam have legitimacy?

    It is important to remember that what previously existed was a stability of oppression, and we should be careful not to read into that condition the completely separate idea of legitimacy.

  21. legitimacy

    what does this word mean, mr ligon? a pro-western “democracy”?

    in the mouths of most (but i know not yours), i submit it means nothing else to the exclusion of all other forms of government, regardless of the consent of the people to such form — for example, mr putin’s government, which is very popular by all accounts, or any of the popular aristocracies and monarchies of european history.

    now is that anything like “legitimacy”, or simply the myopia of holding a very narrow set of beliefs?

  22. “legitimacy

    what does this word mean, mr ligon?”

    Good question, and certainly something that should be pondered before we decide outright that it can never be brought from the outside.

    The term is value-loaded in a sense. There must be some attached notion of what the purpose of government is. Now that I think about it, there are two ideas floating around in my head – practical legitimacy and value-derived legitimacy. Pardon the clumsiness of the terms, I just made them up.

    Practical legitimacy is the feature of a government of any type that describes the extent to which people elect to operate within its confines. I keep coming back to the notion that the legitimate government in this sense is the one that you choose. Each person does not get exactly the government they want, but the end result is something that the citizenry chooses to work within as an alternative to violence. A monarch can have practical legitimacy because most people believe in the divine right of kings, for example. If a dictator retains power solely through the use of force, they do not have practical legitimacy.

    In another sense of the word, I have a set of values that describe, to me, what the legitimate aspects government are – Power must flow from the consent of the governed; government must be held accountable to codified rights; government is not above the law, and so forth. This creates a more restricted set of allowable examples.

    I would love to argue that these two ideas are identical, but that would be a lie. Practical legitimacy can result from any commonly held value position whatsoever, even if I find it abhorrent.

    Maybe I am just talking about the difference between a government that is stable and one that is just?

  23. legitimacy is the feature of a government of any type that describes the extent to which people elect to operate within its confines.

    If a dictator retains power solely through the use of force, they do not have practical legitimacy.

    but of course, mr ligon, no despot does this to any great extent; any that are forced to mass reprisals against an angry majority are usually not far from the end. hitler and stalin, for examples, were beloved of the mass of their peoples. the despot may intimidate the dissidents by making examples of the few, and use propaganda to hold the majority and so indoctrinate people to elect to operate within its confines — but that is far short of the use of violence against the whole population.

    and it can readily be argued that this is no different than what democracy does in making examples of the lawless to elicit cooperation — particularly w/r/t propaganda, which is dizzyingly thick in modern western states.

    in the end, every government elicits cooperation by threat of force against the noncompliant. the difference, then, between a despot and a democracy rests largely in the proportions of the satisfied and the dissenting — and not always even in that.

    i think ‘legitimacy’ must have different foundations than unforced complicity, which is democratic utopianism (which is easy to come by these days in america).

    does ‘legitimacy’ consist of more than hobbesian submission to power coerced? i think so, but cannot demonstrate it, like you, on any but moral grounds. i do not, however, think it tied in any way to democracy, which is ultimately a dangerous short step from selfish anarchy and subsequent tyranny.

  24. I believe that although “legitimacy” is a relative term, it is quantifiable.

    We can measure relative legitimacy on a comparative basis by looking at the number of police per capita required to enforce policy. We can also measure relative legitimacy by the percentage of GDP spent on law enforcement.

    I would suggest that there are different kinds of legitimacy, quantitative and substantive.

    When we’re talking about the relative legitimacy of one country compared to another, I think that’s quantitative legitimacy. For instance, because the Saddam Hussein regime required more police per capita to enforce government policy than Denmark required over the same time period, we can safely say that the Hussein regime was illegitimate relative to Denmark.

    We can also measure the relative legitimacy of a single government over time, but, right now, that’s hard to do in Iraq. It’s hard to measure legitimacy when, for whatever reason, the government just can’t keep the peace. In that situation, I think we can only conclude that the governing authority in question is substantively rather than quantifiably illegitimate.

  25. Gaius –

    I don’t wish to speak for Mr. Ligon, but as for myself, the threat of force, or in your words –

    the despot may intimidate the dissidents by making examples of the few, and use propaganda to hold the majority and so indoctrinate people to elect to operate within its confines — but that is far short of the use of violence against the whole population.


    Is not very different for forcing the entire population into submission. The mob operates under the premise that a few gruesome public deaths will keep the others in line, and it works. You can’t possibly believe that simply because the others didn’t lose arms or legs they weren’t *forced* into submission. They were forced by fear and false pretenses.

    Your definition of force seems very technical and hinges on semantics while ignoring the overall idea. Or said another way, stop looking at the trees, and pay attention to the forest.

  26. We can measure relative legitimacy on a comparative basis by looking at the number of police per capita required to enforce policy.

    What the size of the police force measures is not the legitimacy of the government, but the percentage of the population that is willing to use violence to oppose the government. That’s not a good proxy for legitimacy, particularly in cultures (such as most of those of the Middle East) which have traditionally been ruled by those who were most successful at killing off their political opponents.

    The way to measure the legitimacy of a government is to examine both the percentage of adults who were allowed to vote and the extent to which their votes map to the actual election outcome. If most Iraqis are allowed to vote and their votes actually determine the outcome of the election, then the Iraqi government is legitimate regardless of which bombers blow up what.

  27. “The way to measure the legitimacy of a government is to examine both the percentage of adults who were allowed to vote and the extent to which their votes map to the actual election outcome.”

    Using your method in Tibet, for instance, both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government are equally illegitimate, but that is clearly not the case.

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