A New Constitution
September 30, 2003
The U.S. occupation of Iraq is getting seriously
weird. The U.S. Government has served notice that the occupation
wont end until the Iraqis come up with a constitution, and
Secretary of State Colin Powell thinks six months is a reasonable
deadline. The Iraqis appointed to do the job say theyll need at least
A year? The U.S. Constitution
was banged out in a couple of months in the summer of 1787. Of course
conditions were somewhat different. The delegates to our Philadelphia
convention were sent by the 13 states, not chosen by a foreign power, and
they had plenty of experience to guide their steps.
Its a little odd for an
invading force to impose self-government on a conquered
people. Self-government usually occurs when there are no foreigners
specifying how its to be done.
The American specifications for
Iraqi self-government include, according to the Washington
Post, the following principles: federalism, democracy,
nonviolence, a respect for diversity, and a role for women. Except
for federalism, none of these principles is embodied in the U.S.
Constitution, which is pretty much defunct anyway. The U.S. Government
today is no more guided by the U.S. Constitution than the Unitarian Church
is guided by the Book of Revelation, but the Iraqis will be expected to
adhere to a constitution that hasnt been written yet.
And why must a constitution be
written? The two chief allies of the United States, Great Britain and
Israel, dont have written constitutions. The British Constitution
can be changed by a simple majority vote in Parliament; the U.S.
Constitution is supposed to be amended by a cumbersome ratification
process, but can actually be changed by five votes in the U.S. Supreme
You might say of our Constitution
what Gandhi said of Western civilization: I think it would be a
wonderful idea. Regardless, an Iraqi constitution modeled closely
on our own wouldnt meet the standards laid down for ending the
Democracy, nonviolence, diversity, women this is the
language of contemporary liberals, not the Founding Fathers, let alone
Arab culture. And the Iraqis also have to cope with their own religious,
ethnic, and tribal divisions. Good luck.
So much for the alleged
conservatism of the Bush administration. The attempt to dictate the
terms of a constitution for a foreign country with an alien culture smacks
more of microwave cooking than of political wisdom. The Bush crowd
knows little of American history and tradition, and even less of those of
the Middle East.
Yet the administration is in
effect choosing a new set of founding fathers for Iraq and ordering them
to compose a constitution, pronto, with a gun to their heads. Is it any
wonder that the world sees Americans as both naive and arrogant? And
can this be the same George W. Bush who, during the 2000 presidential
campaign, voiced a prudent conservative skepticism about nation-building
Overpowering Iraq was the easy
part. Destruction is simple in principle and America is incomparable at
achieving it. But its obvious that raw force has nothing to do with
the ability to create and nurture viable institutions. The administration
wasnt content with smashing Saddam Husseins regime; it
felt it must stick around and take responsibility for the aftermath for as
long as it took. Now it expects to develop a new Iraqi political culture in
The sheer economic cost of the
occupation has already turned out to be staggering, far beyond the
administrations hopeful estimates. Just keeping the water and
electricity flowing is a huge job. But transplanting Western-style
governance, which is clumsy enough even at home, is more like irrigating
the Sahara or heating Antarctica. If youre ambitious enough to try
it, youd better not be in a big hurry.
Two years ago a war to end
terrorism sounded futile enough. But to this Bush has now added what
nobody would have predicted of him: goals that are downright utopian. He
makes Woodrow Wilson at Versailles seem like a nuts-and-bolts man. He
also inspires nostalgia for his father, who approached the 1991 Iraq war
with sharply limited purposes purposes so narrow that they only
whetted the appetite of neoconservatives for a bigger and better war in
the Middle East.
neoconservatives have been leading the younger Bush by the nose.
Were now learning what regime change really meant. And
learning the hard way.