The Washington Times

Thanks to the spike in insurgent violence in Iraq, beginning with the grisly scene of mutilated American bodies in Fallujah and continuing through a violent weekend, the question of whether the June 30 transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi authority should go forward is now on the table. Is it, perhaps, too soon? Doesn’t handing over sovereignty in a deteriorating security environment pose additional risks, including, perhaps, an emerging full-scale civil war?

With all due respect to those raising it, let us not overstate the importance of the sovereignty transfer in the scheme of things. This transfer is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is, at it has always been, a stable, peaceful, liberal and democratic Iraq, or as close to such an Iraq as we can come sparing no effort. The transfer of sovereignty does not change that end, in the sense of creating conditions in which we might reasonably abandon it or substitute for it something unstable, violent, illiberal and undemocratic in the name of respecting “sovereignty.” We have to remain committed to the task of political reconstruction that we set for ourselves at the outset, regardless of where formal sovereignty lies.

“Sovereignty” is a term with multiple levels of meaning, and we would be better off understanding and, to be blunt, taking advantage of the different senses in which the term is used rather than glossing over the differences and thereby becoming confused ourselves.

In the classical sense, a state is sovereign if it has clearly demarcated borders within which the political authority enjoys a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. This is a good and useful starting point, but matters quickly become more complex.

For example, the monopoly on the legitimate use of force, as my friend Lee Harris likes to point out [in, among other writings, his brilliant new book, “Civilization and Its Enemies”], needs to come quite close to a monopoly on the use of force as such. A sovereign state can tolerate a certain amount of violent crime, but if it fails to deliver the tranquillitatis ordinis, or civil peace of everyday life, then its “sovereign” character is very much in question.

We spend a lot of time these days thinking about weak states and “failed” states, and rightly so. When there is no one authoritatively in charge, it is difficult to know whom to hold accountable. The prospect of violence extending beyond its borders with no “return address” is especially vexing. One could describe the war in Afghanistan as an exercise in holding a government, the Taliban, accountable for the activities of those operating on its territory, al Qaeda – whether or not the Taliban ever could have controlled al Qaeda.

But sovereignty is also a matter of recognition by other states – which is to say, states acknowledge one another’s sovereignty. This mutual recognition in turn creates possibilities for international law, as states may agree to be bound by treaty with other states or by practice evolve common standards of international conduct. But note that “sovereignty” here is very different from “sovereignty” in the previous sense. The “rights” states enjoy as sovereign are formal, belonging to each and every state that is called a state, regardless of what other qualities each may have.

In other words, we certainly cannot deduce from the fact that we call something a state [legal sovereignty] the conclusion that this state has the properties that we also often attribute to statehood, control of territory and monopoly on force [Westphalian sovereignty, after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648]. At best, we must start with legal sovereignty, a state, and then ask how well or if it meets such tests as control of territory and monopoly on force. There is no guarantee it will, but people often act as if there is no need to ask the question.

The relevance to Iraq should be obvious: The newly sovereign, post-June 30 Iraq will indeed possess legal sovereignty. That will be useful insofar as a number of countries are demanding a framework based in international law in exchange for their help in postwar Iraq [and many of those currently participating would be more comfortable operating within such a framework].

But this legal sovereignty cannot and should not obscure the reality on the ground: Iraqi authority has a long way to go before it can be said to exert sovereignty in the Westphalian sense, and to a very great degree, the control of territory and the monopoly on legitimate force [first of all, for the purpose of waging an ongoing war against illegitimate force, i.e., the insurgency] will depend crucially on the United States and allied forces.

Only down the road, once it has adequate police and military to control its territory, will Iraq be sovereign not only in law but in fact. Legal sovereignty June 30 is a means by which to assist in the construction of a truly sovereign Iraq that is also liberal and democratic.