federalism in iraq?



Chicago, February 28, 2003


This past week (February 21) The Washington Post published leaked information on postwar Iraq regarding plans of reconstruction, humanitarian aid, and the de-Baathification of the new regime. The importance of the document stems from the few scattered details that were provided by the Bush administration officials on how the new political regime would look like, in addition to related details on the interim American administration in Baghdad, i.e. the appointment of a nonmilitary civil administrator as soon as law and order are established after Iraq’s liberation. Apparently, the original plan for an interim military administration for a year or two under Gen. Tommy Franks has been dismissed to avoid the image of another pipe-smoking MacArthur blowing his orders to obedient (or disobedient) Iraqis. Slate.com (February 28) came up with potential names of candidates, with Lt. Gen. John Abizaid (Abu-Zayd) as the forerunner. An American of Lebanese descent (and from a Christian family), Abizaid is fluent in Arabic, which means he has the rare ability to communicate directly with the Iraqi people. In the meantime, some 20 to 25 Iraqis would assist U.S. authorities in a U.S.-appointed “consultative council,” with no governing responsibility. In addition, an Iraqi commission would be formed to reestablish a judicial system. An additional commission would write a new constitution, although officials emphasized that they would not expect to “democratize” Iraq along the lines of the U.S. governing system. Instead, the likelihood is for a “representative Iraqi government.”


So far so good. What the leaked information avoids, however, is the notion of “federalism” as proposed in the meeting of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in London in mid-December. Only once, one official was quoted that “We don’t want a weak federal government that plays into the hands of regional powers,” allowing Iraq to be divided into de facto spheres of influence. Another article posted on the website of The New Republic (February 27) claims that the “(Bush) administration has suddenly soured on federalism.” Apparently, the deal sealed with the Turks this past week, and which included a financial aid amounting to 26 billion, promised the newly appointed Ankara government that federalism will be shelved off. Such an attitude is understandable amid fears that a federal Iraq implies considerable autonomy for the Kurds in the north, a prospect that frightens the Turks who have been reckless with their Kurds since the foundation of the “secular” Turkish Republic back in the 1920s.


If the information on the dismissal of federalism proves correct, the whole U.S. takeover of Iraq (possibly by the end of March) might be jeopardized and an irreversible damage created for the pacification of Iraq. In fact, the U.S. might suddenly find itself in the British colonial shoes of the interwar period, which means another missed opportunity for the Fertile Crescent, and one more colonial failure.


As Hannah Arendt has argued in a brilliant chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism, the colonial powers, mainly the British and French, when faced with societies that were unable to melt into modern nation-states, mapped them into rival “races” to be “bureaucratically” administered. “Race and bureaucracy” thus became the motto of the colonial administrators, beginning with Lord Cromer in Egypt. It was therefore no coincidence that the framers of the original text of the Balfour declaration in 1917 had referred to “the Jewish race” but made no fuss about changing that to “the Jewish people” once pressured by the Zionists under the tutelage of Chaim Weizmann. When all was done and said, and the British were awarded their Mandate by the League of Nations in 1922, the League recognized The Zionist Organization “as a public body” representing the Jews of Palestine (both the indigenous Jews and the new immigrants). For their part, the Arab Palestinians had a “Supreme Council” elected by the Muslim community of Palestine acting on their behalf (in spite of a 20% margin of Christians among the Arab Palestinians). Moreover, the elected Supreme Council took control of the Muslim endowments (known as waqfs) and the religious sharî‘a courts. The British administration thus assumed right from the beginning that the new entity labeled “Palestine,” and whose definitive borders were negotiated with the French in 1923, would not fit within one coherent “nation-state” and would thus be “shared”—if not “divided”— among Jews and Arabs. For that very reason there was never at any moment any British proposal for a common political and judicial framework that would contain both Arab and Jewish aspirations: the two “categories” were looked upon as separate “races” that would not fit together. Moreover, it did not matter that there were rival factions with different aspirations on both camps, and that such rivalries could create havoc within the group itself.


The British administrative tools and methods of government were thus clear from the beginning of the Mandate and their modus operandi concretized during the so-called Arab revolt in 1916-18. With the demise of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires the British and French were scrambling for solutions to contain the “societies” previously integrated within those empires. Regarding the Arab provinces of the Ottoman empire, the British thought first of an “Arab empire” with a Hashemite caliph on top (Sharif Husayn of Mecca), then a year later began shifting towards an “Arab state” whose initial “borders” were negotiated in what became known as the Husayn-McMahon correspondence. All that turned pure nonsense, and the initial blueprint for a preliminary arrangement between French and British came in the form of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. What this brief history shows is that the British and French were much more concerned with “borders”—understood as what contains the territorial integrity of a modern nation-state—than with forms of government and the political and judicial institutions that need to be implemented to contain the various ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups within the Fertile Crescent. Having assumed that all such groups were “races,” the next step was to go ahead and acknowledge all kinds of institutions and practices they had inherited from the Ottomans. Property titles, waqfs, religious laws and courts, noble families, tribal chiefs, etc., were all duly recognized as forming the modus vivendi of those societies. In other words, all kinds of institutions and practices, of which the late Ottomans of the Tanzimat became weary, and which Atatürk was happy to abolish in 1926, received a privileged status under colonialism. If one was to accuse the colonialists of any fault, it would definitely be for a lack of imagination in handling multi-ethnic societies. Coming from the long heritage of a centralized nation-state, the British lacked the imagination when dealing with multi-ethnic cultures whose institutions have been lagging behind for centuries.


When those ethnically diversified societies felt trapped in the 1920s in their newly designed Sykes-Picot borders, the rule of the game was the survival of the fittest. The Zionists and the Yishuv end up controlling Palestine by 1947-48, creating a stateless Palestinian society. The Kurds, even though were promised a “state” of their own, end up empty handed because they did not fit within any of the “racial” divisions of Greater Syria. In Iraq, the Sunni Arab minority, which controlled since Ottoman times the main administrative posts and land titles, monopolized the nascent Hashemite state apparatus instituted by the British. By the 1950s and 1960s most Arab states were already trapped in minority sectarian regimes, which Naserism and Baathism attempted to bypass through “holistic” pan-Arab ideologies.


If the above press reports claiming that the Bush administration has dismissed plans for a federal Iraq come to be true, then we’re back to British colonialism, and the newly appointed American military or civil administrator will undoubtedly spend much of his (or her) time reading Lord Cromer. In effect, and in spite of the administration’s willingness to work out from day one a new Iraqi constitution and a new judiciary, that won’t be enough because the emerging Iraqi political body will be centralized rather than federalized. That will create problems within a poorly integrated multi-ethnic and religious society.


The other alternative would be to go for a full-fledged federalism. Early attempts by the INC in its December meeting have willy-nilly demarcated three “federal zones” in the Kurdish north, the Arab Sunni central areas, and the Shi‘i south. But that won’t be enough: all those ethnic-religious groups are not homogeneous entities and their internal disputes and violent dissensions could easily overburden the nascent federal state. A better alternative would be smaller but more competitive “zones”—or Swiss “cantons”—with ethnic or non-ethnic regional affiliations. While the federal state in Baghdad would maintain its own secular constitution and laws, the regional states would have their own religious or secular codes. On the long run, the federal state would work out for a better homogenization of all those regional codes and institutions. The point here is to avoid a situation of a centralized state with brutal manners, and with all kinds of equally brutal divisions in the peripheries within and among ethnic and regional groups.


If Iraqi federalism works well, Baghdad could then host the Olympics in 2024, and declare the postwar reconstruction an unmitigated triumph.




copyright © 2003 zouhair ghazzal