How to Build a Democratic Iraq: What follows the war in Iraq will be at least as important as the war itself. Nurturing democracy there after Saddam won’t be easy. But it may not be impossible either. Iraq has several assets doing for it, including an educated middle class and a history of political pluralism under an earlier monarchy. (Adeed I. Dawisha and Karen Dawisha, May/June 2003, Foreign Affairs)

Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian diversity — the splits between Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen, and between Shi`ites and Sunnis — is usually seen as an impediment to building a stable democracy there. The fact is, however, that all this antagonism could serve a constructive purpose: having factions zealously check each others’ power could actually promote democracy at the expense of rigid communal particularism. The trick is to work out a constitutional arrangement that makes sense of Iraq’s social and cultural mosaic, transforming diversity into an agent for positive change.

For that reason, democratic Iraq must have a federal system of government. Already, the Kurds — who have enjoyed freedom from Baghdad’s control since the establishment of the northern no-fly zone — have been adamant in demanding such a system. But all Iraqis would benefit from federalism, as the example of other current federal states — the United States, Germany, Russia, and now the United Kingdom — suggests.

In a federal Iraq, both Baghdad and the regions should be equal guardians of the constitution. Monitoring the rights and arbitrating disputes between these power bases should be the responsibility of a strong federal judiciary. As other federal states have shown, constitutional amendments to change this arrangement should be allowed only with the concurrence of both houses of the legislature, the head of state, and all federal units. Allowing the center to bypass the regions in amending the constitution quickly dilutes local rights and increases regional antipathy to central control — as occurred in Russia before the December 1993 referendum imposed a new federal constitution.

Successful federal systems also divide power to raise and distribute revenues between the capital and the periphery. Central revenues can be used to redistribute resources from rich to poor regions, whereas local revenues support local economic and cultural initiatives. Such revenue-sharing arrangements are critical because power follows resources; when the central government denies regions the right to raise and spend money, it is tantamount to denying them authority. Revenue-sharing, on the other hand, can also decrease the temptation for one ethnic group to either capture the state or seek separation. That said, as in other federal states, certain strategic assets such as Iraq’s petroleum must remain in the hands of the central government.

Local governments should in general have widespread control over their territories. This includes responsibility for all citizens in a given region, not just those of a given ethnicity. The now-collapsed Israeli efforts to give the Palestinian Authority control over some Arab activity in the West Bank and Gaza, while Jerusalem retained sovereignty over Jews in the territories, was a doomed formula: modern states, with their massive infrastructures, must be organized territorially and can function only in that manner. Limiting authorities to caring for their own kind only reinforces tribal, ethnic, and religious divisions, which can undermine democracy. For these reasons, any attempts on the part of Iraq’s Arab elites to once again grant the Kurds autonomy — without also giving them substantial control over their territory as a unit in the federal structure — will likewise be doomed to fail.

Admittedly, federalism does not always satisfy the aspirations of groups bent on independence, as demonstrated by the conflicts in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, and Chechnya. At the same time, devolution of power has succeeded in stemming the rise of separatism in the other ethnic republics of Russia, in Scotland, and in Montenegro — and could do the same for Iraq, if properly handled.

Why would Americans think Federalism a bad idea?

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