October 18, 2005
'Standing Up' a Constitution

By George Will

(The first civilian leader of the U.S. occupation, Jay) Garner was talking about putting in ninety days in Iraq and then heading home. ... At dinner in the Hilton restaurant (in Baghdad in April 2003) ... Garner laid out his timetable: reconstruct utilities, stand up ministries, appoint an interim government, write and ratify a constitution, hold elections. By August, Iraq would have a sovereign, functioning government in place. There was a stunned silence. Someone at the table said, "Which August?''

-- George Packer, ``The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq''

WASHINGTON -- Eccentric language often is symptomatic of peculiar thinking, and when the history of America's Iraq intervention is written, attention should be paid to the interveners' frequent use of the locution ``to stand up.'' It carries the thought that things -- institutions such as armies and ministries, and even entire nations -- might be knocked over, as happens to lamps at rowdy parties, but then one simply stands them back up.

Last weekend Iraqi voters stood up a constitution. Before the vote, President Bush's national security adviser, Steve Hadley, said that, ``Whatever Iraqis decide, this is progress.'' Perhaps.

The administration's theory, which cannot be dismissed as foolish just because it is dogmatically cheerful, or because history contains ominous counterexamples, is that there could not have been a bad outcome from last weekend's vote: The mere fact of voting, by drawing Iraq's tribal factions into politics, enmeshes them in the democratic process and its civilities.

Perhaps. But from 1929 through 1933 the turnout in German elections was especially high, because so were the stakes. In Germany's turmoil the issues included which mobs would control the streets and which groups would be persecuted. In Iraq's turmoil the issues include, or are thought by many Iraqis to include, the same things.

The Bush administration deserves high praise for overseeing the drafting and ratification of Iraq's constitution, another hurdle in the administration's transformative war to remake an entire region. The administration should, however, refrain from further strained analogies between Iraq today and America at its constitutional founding.

Yes, of course, America's Constitution was a second try, after a stumbling start with the Articles of Confederation. And, yes, America's Constitution was ratified only after, and perhaps only because, amendments were possible and were promised. But the salient difference is this: America's Constitution was written to strengthen the central government for a remarkably homogeneous society. Iraq's constitution was written to make a strong central government impossible for a violently tribal society. The constitution's basis -- federalism based on ethnicity -- replicates the condition that contained the seeds of America's Civil War: the deepest political cleavages coincide with regional cleavages.

Still, the Bush administration's increasingly skillful engagement with Iraq's political evolution proves how much it has come to terms with the fact that, as The New Yorker's George Packer writes, ``victory in Iraq is a process, not an event.'' The tardy recognition of that fact was costly.

When Baghdad was engulfed in the lawlessness and looting that gutted the Iraqi state after Saddam's regime fell, Donald Rumsfeld's response was: ``Stuff happens'' and ``it's untidy, and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.'' These now-famous words, writes Packer, ``implied a whole political philosophy'' which had what Packer calls ``the purity of untested thoughts'':

``The defense secretary looked upon anarchy and saw the early stages of democracy. In his view and that of others in the administration, but above all the president, freedom was the absence of constraint. Freedom existed in divinely endowed human nature, not in man-made institutions and laws. Remove a thirty-five-year-old tyranny and democracy will grow in its place, because people everywhere want to be free. There was no contingency for psychological demolition. What had been left out of the planning were the Iraqis themselves.''

Which means there was almost no planning. Why plan for what will sprout spontaneously?

When America's Constitution was ratified in 1789, federalism was an unfinished fact. (It still is, but today's adjustments of states' rights and responsibilities are minor matters.) If the federal government of 1789 had not grown in strength, relative to the states, far more than most ratifiers of the Constitution anticipated or desired, the United States probably would not have remained united. So the question today, which will be answered in coming years by the political process framed by Iraq's new constitution, is whether that constitution ``stands up'' a nation, or presages the partitioning of it, perhaps by the serrated blade of civil war.

© 2005, Washington Post Writers Group

George Will

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