Politics & Policy

Constitutional Considerations

The Iraqi constitution is still a work in progress. The current draft tips toward the creation of a federal state and gives Islamic law a greater say than previously in family matters, possibly curtailing women’s rights; but the language about Islam being “a main source for legislation” mirrors a similar provision in the Afghan constitution, which didn’t usher in a new version of the Taliban. The Iraqi document also contains numerous guarantees of individual rights, making it the most liberal constitution in the Middle East.

That’s on paper. What it actually means, given contradictory passages and deliberately vague provisions, will have to be worked out in practice. How much power, for instance, experts in sharia law who sit on the supreme court actually have will be a key determinant of the nature of the new Iraqi state. The immediate imperative is to attempt to get the Sunnis on board the draft, although they weren’t part of negotiations earlier in the week. They prefer a more centralized government, since if the Kurds and Shia go their own ways, they will be left with a dusty little rump state. Given the murderous Sunni insurgency (and the Baathist ties of the Sunni negotiators), it is tempting to tell them to pound sand, but a Sunni rejection of the charter could tip the country further toward all-out civil war.

There has been much consternation in the U.S. over women’s rights and the role of Islam in the constitution. How could President Bush, the critics ask, promise democracy and then countenance such an illiberal constitution? But he always said it would be democracy with Iraqi characteristics, and not all of those characteristics are going to be palatable to Western liberals. Iraq is in many ways still a traditional Islamic society. Saddam maintained a nominally secular state only on the basis of violence. And even Saddam, as the appeal of Baathism waned after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, had given more authority to the traditional supports of Iraqi society, the tribes and the clerics. The trick for the U.S. is to nudge Iraqi governance in a more representative and pluralistic direction without so offending the sensibilities of religious Iraqis as to prompt a backlash that undoes everything. It is a tightrope the administration has walked as well as can be expected.

As with so much else in Iraq, it is impossible to evaluate the constitution reasonably without a strong dose of realism. What can we still realistically expect in Iraq? Plenty. Most important, a government that doesn’t threaten us or its neighbors. One that doesn’t harbor terrorists or produce WMDs. That doesn’t commit gross human-rights violations and that is basically representative. If the center can hold in Iraq, our intervention there will continue to have a positive ripple effect in the region, influencing its geopolitics in our favor. All of this would justify both the original invasion to topple Saddam and the effort to forge a replacement government.

“We are already on the

downward slope of the curve when

it comes to our influence in Iraq.”

In the crucial months ahead, the U.S. has to refocus its efforts in Iraq. The rest of the U.S. government often doesn’t seem as engaged as the Army and the Marine Corps. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s indispensable work brokering the constitution demonstrates how scandalous it was that the administration didn’t have an ambassador in Iraq for months after the January election, a period when the political process lost momentum. The electricity meltdown still cries for obsessive attention from someone in the U.S. government of the sort that Paul Bremer gave it when he was in Iraq. The Pentagon, shockingly, still hasn’t gotten control of its own procurement process when it comes to providing troops armored vehicles and body armor. Even if it seems we are banging our head against the wall, it is still worth reminding our allies of the stakes for all the world if we fail in Iraq and finding ways for them to help.

All of this is crucially important right now because we are already on the downward slope of the curve when it comes to our influence in Iraq, which will diminish naturally with time as Iraqis take more day-to-day control of their own destiny. Indeed, there is no ignoring a natural limit to our commitment. Iraqi tolerance for a foreign occupying army will tend to decrease over time. American public support for the war–already sagging–will obviously not be inexhaustible. Nor will the strain on the military of a 140,000-strong presence in Iraq, with third tours approaching for some units and army recruiting suffering, be sustainable in perpetuity.

We have given Iraqis a chance at a better future. Eventually, it will be up to them to make of it–their country, their politics, their constitution–what they will.


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