Wednesday, October 18, 2006

More nuance to US Iraq policy debate

A significant change in US policy towards Iraq now seems likely, after a number of senior Republicans have called for a rethink of strategy. Perhaps most significantly, the report of a bipartisan review panel on the issue, set up with the blessing of Bush himself and chaired by Republican and Bush-ally James Baker, which isn't scheduled for release until after the elections on the 7th November, has been leaked to the press.

Perhaps most significant is the claim, which Baker has repeated in TV interveiws, that political rhetoric on the subject has been impoverished by the imposition of a crudely dichotomous framework (which has been exploited on many occasions by Bush himself in order to shore up support for the venture). Baker himself has stated that 'Our commission believes that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives, the ones that are out there in the political debate of 'stay the course' or 'cut and run'".

This can only be welcomed. In the context of a situation as complex and challenging as Iraq, no debate worthy of the name can take place within such a discursive framework; however, opening up discourse in the manner suggested will make it harder, if not impossible, for the occupation to be presented and understood in the simple terms that American politicking often seems to demand: that of victory and loss. This may, however, be a risk that Bush is prepared to run now, as it seems increasingly likely that, if such a stark appraisal is to be made, then most will view the Iraq war as the latter.

The proposals of Baker's Commission have not yet been released in full, but they look likely to include greater dialogue with, and a greater role for, Iran and Syria (as neither country has an interest in an unstable Iraq). Perhaps more interestingly, from an international law point of view, is that the stated aim of democratisation - for Iraq and for the Middle East in general - may be downgraded to securing simply "representative government"; government that reflects the will of its constitutents, without necessarily being democratic.

If such a move was to become a major element of US foreign policy in the region, it would be a significant blow to those, such as, most notably, Thomas Franck, who have claimed for over ten years that a human right to democratic governance has been "emerging" in international law, based, in large degree, on state practice, both multi- and uni-lateral in this field, and in particular on the practice of election monitoring and the soft law development of rules on what constitutes a "free and fair election". If a state as important as the US begins to pursue representative, rather than democratic, government, then this would provide significant ammunition to those skeptics, such as Brad Roth, who have argued that, although international law is no longer blind to the nature of domestic government, a right to democratic governance is based on a "wishful reading" of the available empirical and textual evidence:

[a]lthough international law regards "the will of the people" as sovereign, that will is not reduced by international law to the outcome of a particular participatory process... And this is quite as it should be. After all, even where electoral process, however "free and fair", occur, they are not necessarily the last word in popular will. (Roth, Governmental Illegitimacy in International Law (1999) p. 343).

I will conclude by briefly noting some ofthe other sources on this debate, for those who are interested. Most of the important articles have been collected in the volume edited by Fox and Roth, Democratic Governance and International Law (2000). Apart from Roth's monograph on Governmental Illegitimacy, one other major - and excellent - book-length contribution is Susan Marks' Riddle of All Constitutions (2000). The profoundly related area of the "democratic peace thesis", which appears in most of not all of the proponents of the proposed human right ot democracy, is dealt with in some detail in the volume edited by Brown, Lynn-Jones and Miller, Debating the Democratic Peace (1996). Lastly, for a more detailed account of my own view on these issues and works, and for further sources, see here.

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