Iraq's unhealthy constitution

The Bush administration's desperate insistence on an instant Iraqi constitution hurts both Iraq and our broader national interests. But when your polls are falling and you need to declare victory, who cares?

Published August 26, 2005 6:33PM (EDT)

Attempting to reassure everyone about the troubled drafting of a new Iraqi constitution, Bush officials often mention the tumultuous early years of the new American republic. The problems faced by the Iraqis, according to the president, the secretary of defense, and the State Department spokesman, somehow parallel those that the founders overcame in writing our own Constitution.

Such comparisons are misleading, not only in the specific provisions of two very different documents, but also in the intentions of their authors. Perhaps the most important distinction, for the moment, is that as America's founders sought to create the charter for a new nation -- indeed, a new kind of nation -- they were not working under the pressured political schedule of an impatient occupying power.

Only after a decade of post-revolutionary confederation did the leaders of the former American colonies convene to write a constitution for the new United States. Despite their regional, political and economic differences, the founders were united in their determination to codify independence and liberty after freeing themselves from the British monarchy (as well as in their cultural homogeneity) -- yet the writing of the Constitution was attended by vituperative debate. Suspicions and fears forestalled complete ratification for more than two years.

The Iraqi factions, divided by their bitter religious and ethnic history, feel no similarly unifying purpose, as evidenced in the draft document they have produced. Their most powerful impulse is to split apart -- and in the case of the Shiite Islamists, to impose their own version of theocratic law. Nevertheless, the Americans overseeing the development of Iraqi democracy insisted that the new constitution be written in a few months, amid the worst possible circumstances; Iraqis are scheduled to vote Oct. 15 on the proposed constitution.

This timetable accommodates the needs of the Bush White House and its loyal Republican supporters, who would like to declare a triumph for democracy in Iraq and start to reduce the number of U.S. troops there. Those needs intensify with every new poll that shows the president's credibility falling and the public mood souring. As the antiwar movement gains attention and midterm elections approach, claiming any kind of "victory" becomes imperative -- even if it falls far short of the promised triumph for liberty.

It also seems likely to lead to a constitution of dubious legitimacy and to potential disaster for the Iraqis. Whether the overthrow of Saddam Hussein could ever have led to the rise of a secular democratic Iraq in the initial postwar period, as envisioned by the proponents of the American invasion, is now unknowable. Few Mideast experts ever considered that outcome likely, to put it politely. (Most considered such visions to be utter fantasy.) As in so many other aspects of American policy, however, the mindless chaos of post-invasion planning and the arrogant incompetence of U.S. officialdom have made matters worse.

It has been obvious for some time that the feuding factions in Baghdad are unready for a successful constitutional process, if not for democracy itself. Lacking the mutual confidence and shared interests that are the necessary elements for this fundamental exercise, the Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis needed to live and work together for many months and perhaps years before devising a durable charter. They might never have been able to accomplish that ideal, but they needed much more time than the Bush administration permitted them.

The writing of a democratically legitimate constitution must be genuinely inclusive, which means that all the concerned groups have to be represented. The Sunni boycott of the parliamentary elections last winter made that essential prerequisite unachievable for now -- which ought to have encouraged American and Iraqi leaders to reevaluate the most desirable "path to democracy."

What they should have realized is that there is simply no way to write a real and functional constitution for a democratic state while a third of the population or more is in revolt. The Sunnis should have been persuaded to stop fighting and join in reconstruction before the constitutional process began, even if that meant new elections.

By rushing the constitution, the U.S. may well have foreclosed the most plausible means for ending the ongoing violence in Iraq: namely, a cease-fire and negotiations between the interim government (with its American sponsor) and the indigenous Sunni insurgents -- believed to constitute the majority of the problem -- and their greater network of sympathizers and supporters across Iraq. Those negotiations might have achieved reasonable guarantees to the Sunnis about their own future status and an orderly timetable for withdrawal of American and other foreign military forces.

At some point after the Sunnis had been induced to lay down their weapons and participate in civil society, they might have joined with other Iraqis in devising a widely accepted constitution. Instead, operating under orders to meet an artificial White House deadline, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has reportedly pushed "compromises" concerning federalism, oil revenues, Islamic law, and other provisions that are exacerbating conflict.

The terrible irony, of course, is that this flawed process has badly damaged broader American interests in Iraq and the Mideast. Having been forced to choose among the Iraqi factions, we have assisted the Shiite factions aligned with Iran and advanced the cause of Islamism in southern and central Iraq.

Should civil war break out in the wake of a constitutional debacle, the withdrawal of American troops will become more difficult and more dangerous -- and the prospect of Iraq ending up as a failed state and an international base for Islamist terror far more likely.

Had the U.S. government really wanted to help Iraq transform itself into a new kind of nation in the Middle East, the political and constitutional process would have developed according to the real lessons of our past and that country's best interest -- and not been shaped to suit the political dictates of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. They have served our democratic ideals very poorly in Iraq -- and along with the Iraqis we may now reap the consequences of their stupidity.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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