Sunday, October 16, 2005

# Posted 11:28 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHAT ARE THE SUNNIS REALLY THINKING? Initial returns suggest that Sunni voters overwhelmingly rejected the constitution -- by a margin of 8 or 9 to 1 -- in two of Iraq's eighteen provinces. In provinces with mixed populations, Sunni opinion was harder to discern. The question is whether the Sunni vote tells us anything about how Sunnis will react now that the constitution seems to have passed.

News analysis columns in both the NYT and WaPo focused much more on how the referendum will play in Washington rather than Iraq. Still, the respective expectations of the optimists and the pessimists are fairly clear. The White House asserts that
"increased participation by Sunni Arabs will draw them into the political process."
Critics, represented in this instance by Ken Pollack's quote in the NYT, respond that
"The theory that democracy is the antidote to insurgency gets disproven on the ground every day."
I would argue that neither the results of the referendum nor the fact of extraordinary Sunni participation tells us much at all. What we need to understand is how the Sunnis understood the meaning of their vote.

Although we have no systematic knowledge of Sunni motivations, I think that American journalists' spot interviews of Sunni voters emerging from the polls provide some very important clues. What the White House would want to hear from such voters is that they believe the poltical process is giving them a fair chance to make their voice heard. It would've been nice, but that's not what they said.

If the critics are right, Sunnis should've explained their "no" vote as an act of resistance against the US occupation and the Shi'ite dominated government. But that didn't happen either. As Anthony Shadid emphasized in his dispatch from Baghdad, Sunni voters kept saying again and again that they were voting "no" in order to preserve Iraq as a unified state.

One might consider such talk of unity to simply be a code for the restoration of Sunni dominance. But why bother talking in code to an American journalist? Typical dispatches from both Sunni and Shi'ite regions of Iraq often include quotes from named individuals saying horribly nasty things about both the United States and other Iraqis. If Sunnis wanted to say that this was a vote against America, they could have. And some of them did. Instead, many of them said things like:
"I had to vote," [Mehdi] said, "to prove that we're still one nation -- Sunni and Shiite."...

"We can't underestimate the value of Iraq. We want it to stay one, united," said Ibtihaj Ismail...

"As Iraqis, as people of Adhamiyah, we are united, we have one word, one voice. As Iraqi people, we can't recognize this document. There are so many mistakes in the constitution. There are paragraphs in it that will destroy Iraq."
Of course, some Sunni voters said what one might expect:
"Do we vote for the [American] massacres of Fallujah, for the massacres of Qaim?"...

"This is to the constitution and to the people who drafted the constitution," [Ali] said, raising [his ink-stained middle finger] in the air.
So, then, what does it mean that so many Sunnis seemed to think of their vote in terms of preserving a unified Iraq rather than in terms of giving the Americans the finger?

At first glance it may almost seem nonsensical, or even the height of chutzpah. How could the supporters of a sectarian insurgency say with a straight face that what they value is national unity?

One might speculate that Iraqi Sunnis are so used to thinking of Iraq as theirs that they can't distinguish between true unity and Sunni domination. But I consider that degree of self-deception to be implausible. I think Sunnis know quite well that Iraq is in the midst of a low-intensity sectarian war.

Thus, I am inclined to intepret Sunni talk of national unity as an indication of their desire -- almost certainly hesitant -- for some sort of national reconciliation. Will that desire translate into less support for the insurgents? Probably not anytime soon.

But I do now expect the Sunnis to turn out for the national elections in December. More broadly, I expect the Sunnis to try and get what they can from the political process without abandoning the insurgents. Some might consider this a cynical exercise to get concessions from the Shi'ites and the Americans by pretending to buy into the political process.

In contrast, I think the Sunnis have decided that they should give the political process a chance in order to see whether it produces better results than the insurgency -- while using the insurgency to improve their position at the bargaining table, just as Arafat used suicide bombings as an adjunct to the negotiating process rather than a substitute for it.

Of course, Arafat was never willing to abandon violence no matter how many concessions he secured. Yet for Arafat, peace represented a serious threat to his mini-dictatorship. Arafat was also able to draw on a major reserve of international support, both political and financial.

In contrast, the Sunnis control nothing and get only few shreds of support from Syria, et al. They have a lot more to gain from peace.
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