October 18, 2005
'Standing Up' a Constitution
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?''
Packer, ``The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq''
-- 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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'':
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
there was almost no planning. Why plan for what will sprout spontaneously?
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