Constitutions take time

Posted: Jul 01, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- If George Bush did not flirt with withdrawal during last year's presidential campaign when it looked as if Iraq might cost him his political career, he certainly will not do so as a second-term president. Americans know that. But the world may not. Particularly as it keeps hearing congressional voices calling for withdrawal, timetables and exit strategies. 
    Hence the president's nationally televised address to the nation Tuesday on Iraq. One purpose, of course, was to state, once again, the case for the war. But the most important line was the restatement of his position on withdrawal before victory: ``This will not happen on my watch.''

     So now we do have the timetable for withdrawal. We are signed on to Iraq into 2008, when the contract comes up for renewal. If we are in roughly the same position in Iraq then as today, the 2008 campaign will become a referendum on withdrawal.

     And if we are no further advanced in securing Iraqi democracy three years from now, the American voter will cancel the contract. But success is more likely, I believe. As the Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami reported recently upon returning from the region: ``The insurgents will do what they are good at. But no one (in Iraq) really believes that those dispensers of death can turn back the clock. ... By a twist of fate, the one Arab country that had seemed ever marked for brutality and sorrow now stands poised on the frontier of a new political world.''

     But there is one major flaw in the agenda for this new political world: writing a constitution. Americans love constitutions. And they are generally a good idea. Ours has worked well. But we had practice and lots of time. The Iraqis do not.

     The deadline is Aug. 15. That leaves six weeks. It took three months just to form a government after the elections, and over a month to find a formula for including Sunnis on the drafting committee for the constitution.

     It will be impossible to write it in the next six weeks, particularly because, as the price for joining the drafting process, the Sunni delegates demanded that all decisions be made by consensus, not by vote. Nor is the six-month extension permitted by the interim constitution the answer.

     The answer is to shelve it indefinitely. This is not the time for constitution- writing. This is the time for finessing. Iraq is too fractured along sectarian lines, too socially ruined by 30 years of totalitarianism, too new to the habits of democracy to be able to record in stone the kind of great cosmic compromises that are the essence of constitutions.

     Even America, which had a century of self-government before independence, needed 13 years before it could draft a workable and durable constitution. And even that one ultimately floundered (albeit, threescore and eleven years later) over the then-insoluble problem of slavery.

     Right now, Iraq is working on ad hoc national understandings. For example, the northern part of the country is essentially an autonomous Kurdish zone outside the control of the central government. For now, that works. But no constitution is going to enshrine such an arrangement. Why force a fledgling democracy to disrupt a working arrangement in the name of high principle when there is no possible principle right now that can accommodate the needs of the central government and the Kurds.

     Similarly, the vexing problems of oil rights and the ethnic balance of Kirkuk, the official role of Islam, and perhaps most crucially, the question of militias. The Kurds have theirs, as does the main Shiite party. Not the most desirable arrangement, but they are trained, cohesive and motivated to fight the insurgency.

     Both Iraq's president and prime minister endorsed their retention a few weeks ago. Constitution-drafting can only disrupt this working arrangement. No constitution will legitimize sectarian militias. Why force the issue?

     And why force the other issues? Better to have the constitutional committee simply draft, for now, one part of the constitution -- a new electoral law to govern the coming Dec. 15 elections for a permanent government.

     That can be done by Aug. 15 and would actually be useful. Trying to get a newly elected constitutional committee to decide once and for all, say, the role of Islam or the legitimacy of militias, will be deeply destructive, at the least; an enormous distraction, at the best.

     Iraqi political energies should be directed toward building a government and an army, assisting reconstruction and fighting the insurgency. Written constitutions are swell. But lots of successful places (Britain, for example) get along without one. So should Iraq, at least for now.