The last time American diplomats locked a group of prospective founding fathers in a room with orders not to come out until they had a constitution was a decade ago, in Dayton, Ohio. The founding fathers in question represented Bosnia's Muslim, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities.
In Baghdad today, as in Dayton 10 years ago, observers have established three major criteria for success. First, can the negotiators meet their self-imposed deadline? Second, can they produce a result that all three groups — in the Iraqi case the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities — can abide by? And third, will that result provide a workable arrangement for the future government of a unified Iraq?
Of these three considerations, the second is by far the most important. Any result that does not engage the three major parties will be worse than no result at all. It is right, therefore, that both the timetable and the actual contents of any constitution take second place to this essential requirement.
This was certainly the calculus made by American diplomats a decade ago in Dayton. The results demonstrate their wisdom. Bosnia remains at peace today. True, the concessions made to each of the three ethnic groups at Dayton, in terms of local autonomy and power-sharing arrangements, produced an unworkable arrangement for government that continues to require international oversight. Yet, even if one cannot foresee an end to this involvement, the international investment in military manpower and economic assistance needed to preserve the peace in Bosnia goes down steadily each year.
There are, of course, big differences between the constitutional processes under way in Baghdad and the one that took place a decade ago in Dayton. Perhaps the most important difference is that 10 years ago the international community was prepared to guarantee the resulting settlement in Bosnia by deploying a very large peacekeeping force. Allowing for Bosnia's smaller size and population, the peacekeeping force deployed into Bosnia to assure implementation of the Dayton accords was nearly three times larger than the current American led coalition in Iraq. Nearly 80 percent of that force came from countries other than the United States.
Unfortunately, no international commitment of this sort will be forthcoming for Iraq. On the contrary, whereas agreement at Dayton was a precondition for greater international involvement, agreement in Baghdad upon a new constitution it is seen by the United States as a precondition for troop reductions.
This means that unlike Bosnia, Iraq will actually have to function under whatever constitutional arrangements emerge from the current negotiating process. A Bosnia-style outcome, which splits Iraq into three hostile, untrusting and largely autonomous areas, without mechanisms to compel compromise among them, could ultimately lead to an even wider civil conflict than the one already under way.
At present there seems a real danger that the Iraqi constitutional process could fail to meet its main objectives, except, give or take a week or two, the self-imposed deadline. If Shiite and Kurd representatives vote to adopt the current draft over Sunni objections, the civil war will intensify. If the constitution adopted leads to the establishment of autonomous Kurdish and Shiite states, each with control over the oil revenues in their respective areas, neither entity will have much incentive to hold the country together for long.
The Dayton accord was a major accomplishment for American diplomacy, and its lead representative, Richard Holbrooke. Today in Baghdad, the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, faces an even more difficult task, with much more at stake, and with far fewer cards to play. He must sustain the time pressure, without which nothing is likely to be achieved. He must ensure that Sunni concerns are accommodated. And he must ensure that the result provides for a workable Iraqi state that can fight a virulent insurgency and hold the country together once American and other international forces leave.
(James Dobbins was the Clinton administration's special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, and the Bush administration's first envoy for Afghanistan. He is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand Corp.)
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on August 27, 2005.