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Western Press Review: Iraq's Interim Constitution And The Limits Of Western Visions For Transforming The Middle East

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 2 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Several of the major dailies today discuss the agreement yesterday in Baghdad by the Iraqi Governing Council on an interim constitution that guarantees the rights of all of Iraq's religious and ethnic groups. The accord now paves the way for a permanent constitution to be drawn up within the next few years. Other topics of media interest today include a future role for NATO in Iraq and the shortcomings of Western visions for transforming the Middle East.


A contribution to "The Washington Times" by Baghdad-based journalist Hiwa Osman lauds yesterday's agreement by the Iraqi Governing Council on an interim Iraqi constitution as "a consensus-built road map that can lead the country toward a modern democratic state." Iraq's new interim constitution "[acknowledges] individual rights without undermining the special character of various ethnic and religious groups."

Osman says, "The ethnically and religiously diverse nature of the country forced the various negotiating parties to settle for less than what each group hoped for but, significantly, created a workable framework through which each feels recognized and respected." The marathon talks on the constitution brought forth a "remarkable spirit of compromise."

And the concessions made by all the negotiating parties "will shape the thinking of the Iraqi people because the outcome illustrates that in politics, nothing is absolute." Osman says this marks "a turning point in the history of the country," that "all or nothing" politics are a thing of the past. A main element of the new document is an Iraqi bill of rights that cannot be repealed by future governments. This has provided a critical assurance that the human rights of the Iraqi people cannot be infringed upon by one ethnic or religious group at the expense of the rest of the population.

"The ethnically and religiously diverse nature of the country forced the various negotiating parties to settle for less than what each group hoped for."
"Diverse ethnic and [religious] groups are the building blocks of today's Iraq," Osman writes. "Consensus will continue to cement the blocks until a permanent constitution is ratified by the Iraqi people."


An editorial today in "The Washington Post" says Iraq's constitutional accord creates "a plausible framework for a democratic and federalized Iraq that defines itself as an Islamic country but embraces political and religious freedom." While the document still lacks some important elements, it "marks an important step toward the [U.S.] administration's goal of stabilizing Iraq under a sovereign government this year, and a hopeful sign about the willingness of Iraq's emerging political class to embrace pragmatism and compromise."

And yet, several autocratic Arab countries also have written constitutions that embrace elements of liberal democracy. "Words on paper don't always determine practice in the region, which is why the decisive political tests in Iraq still lie in the future," says the "Post." But an important step was taken over the weekend when the numerous factions on Iraq's Governing Council "agreed to guarantee the rights of speech, assembly and the press, and that they provided for an independent court system with protections for the accused."

Several political and logistical challenges lie ahead, beginning with the creation of an interim government that can take control after the scheduled power transfer on 30 June. "But if yesterday's accord signals a willingness by Iraq's leaders [to] recognize the legitimate interests of other religious and ethnic groups, the prospect that Iraq will manage to turn a corner this year will be considerably brighter."


In a contribution to the "Financial Times," Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says in formulating a plan for resolving the Middle East conflict, there are lessons to be drawn from the West's attempts to encourage regional development in post-Soviet Eastern Europe.

A developing nation must have both "the right economic policies and a state strong enough to guide economic development." Second, it helps if there is some element of nationalist feeling present. And third, the West itself "has to be prepared to make real economic sacrifices." Democracy is not, as yet, of such critical importance in the early stages, Lieven says. However, "law and social freedom certainly are."

In the post-Cold War period, Eastern Europe's "passionate desire to escape [Moscow's] imperialist clutches" led to a "strong nationalist 'push' towards the West." But the process of integrating them into the West's institutions and alliances was "not cheap" for either Western Europe or the United States.

Economic aid to the East "seemed grossly inadequate to the recipients,” he says, but it was “colossal compared with the paltry sums Washington is talking of spending in the Middle East.”

The contrasts between the West's post-Soviet nation building experience and its plan for the greater Middle East are "bleak," says Lieven. Most of the region's religious and ethnic distinctions are not grouped by nation, and thus "their sense [of] common national purpose is weak." And the willingness of the U.S. and Europe "to make real sacrifices" to develop the region is "highly questionable."

Lieven says combating the threats posed by failed Middle Eastern states "will require a level of Western commitment vastly greater than anything envisaged today."


Frederick Bonnart of the independent military journal "NATO's Nations" says that while Iraq is making progress toward self-rule, any interim government taking over from the U.S.-led coalition on the scheduled 30 June deadline will need significant military help to maintain internal security. And NATO, he says, "seems made for the task."

Bonnart says intervention in Iraq would help the alliance "regain its former centrality as the basic Western security organization" and help heal the trans-Atlantic rift.

Before NATO can sign on for the job, however, a few preconditions must be met. With NATO forces already in the Balkans and Afghanistan, troops are "in short supply." The U.S. will have to provide the largest contingent, but Europe must also show they are serious about the commitments they have made.

At the same time, Bonnart writes, Washington will also "have to accept that the United States is one of NATO's 19 member states," and that the alliance reaches its decisions through consensus. U.S. forces "would not act independently," and NATO must not be viewed as "an auxiliary in American undertakings."

A NATO role in Iraq would only follow from "a request for its intervention from a recognized Iraqi government, and a mandate from the United Nations."

NATO should take on "the lead role" in establishing security in Iraq, Bonnart says. If an international force were in charge, "instead of what is seen as an American military occupation, internal resistance would abate, and much of the weight and most of the opprobrium would be lifted from American shoulders. NATO would be confirmed as the primary international peacekeeper, and its unchanging role as the essential Western security organization would be recognized once more."


France's "Le Figaro" carries an item today by Antoine Sfeir, who writes extensively on Islamic affairs. He says in the Middle East, Europe is viewed as an "abstract concept." What is today geographical Europe or the EU has not yet replaced the individual nation-states of Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and so on. The union today is primarily an economic entity that has yet to become a truly unified political one.

And in a sense, Sfeir says, Europe's struggling attempt to abolish national borders is its own just reward. At the beginning of the 20th century, Europe's colonial powers attempted to draw national borders in the Middle East in areas that had not been thus divided since the time of the pharaohs.

Europe was attempting to create nation-states in the region in accordance with its own Western model. And thus, says Sfeir, Europe should not be surprised that the Middle East views the EU as something other than a natural alliance between sovereign states.

Alliances between Europe and the Muslim world have historically been made based on the personal affinity between rulers. But the two sides have also experienced numerous conflicts, among them the Crusades. The powerful Ottoman Empire eventually gave way to the ascension of individual European nations, colonialism, and the industrial revolution.

From then on, the two sides have intermittently clashed -- on one side stands a borderless politico-religious Islamic vision and, on the other, a Europe that has become a political zone far removed from religion, with countries strictly delineated by national borders and guided by secular laws and institutions.