Iraq's constitutional agenda

Signing: The Bush administration calls the interim constitution "a major achievement," but Iraqis aren't so sure.

March 14, 2004|By William R. Polk | William R. Polk,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Last Monday, a gathering of carefully selected Iraqis, "guided" by a group of American "advisers," approved the draft of an interim constitution for Iraq.

Occurring almost a year after the U.S.-British-led coalition invaded Iraq, the event was proclaimed by U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell as "a major achievement" and by British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a "foundation stone" for the new Iraq.

Why is the American government so keen to promulgate a constitution? Why are the Iraqis less enthusiastic? What does the constitution echo of the past, and what does it augur for the future?

First, the American government has been shocked by the fact - spelled out with car bombs, rockets and machine guns - that many Iraqis did not welcome foreign intervention. The Pentagon apparently believed that Iraqis would greet American troops with "flowers and sweets." But American troops have suffered more casualties in the months since President Bush proclaimed the end of major combat in Iraq than in the first three years of the Vietnam War in the early 1960s.

This should not have surprised Americans. History shows that people rarely welcome foreign troops. Our own revolution in 1775 was triggered by American anger at the presence of British troops among us; more recently, we learned, agonizingly, in Vietnam and Somalia that, however much natives dislike one another, they seldom want others interfering in their conflicts.

As professional American intelligence and political experts have repeatedly warned, attempting to skew facts to fit policies is always self-defeating. Of this, too, we have had painful but unlearned lessons. One was the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Then, we listened to the siren call of men biased by their interests who told us that the Cubans would welcome us with open arms. We were so embarrassed by our failure that when aircraft of the Alabama Air National Guard were shot down, we refused even to accept the bodies of our aviators for burial.

Before the invasion of Iraq, when professionals in the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department refused to substantiate a similar naive expectation, the Pentagon brushed them aside and created a new organization, the "Office of Special Plans," to say what Paul Wolfowitz and his "neoconservative" colleagues wanted to hear. What this unorthodox intelligence "shop" turned out rested in part on the lavishly-paid-for testimony of an Iraqi emigre, Ahmad Chalabi.

Again, warning bells sounded but were not heard. Paid-for intelligence by definition is always suspect - those who sell it have a stake in producing it. And Chalabi was at least a questionable source. He had not been in Iraq for many years, having left as a boy, and he had been convicted of embezzling the funds of a Jordanian bank of which he was president.

Since American troops quickly won the battle against the small and obsolete Iraqi army, they have been caught in a costly and, many believe, unwinnable guerrilla war. How to end that war quickly, before the November elections in the United States, is a major aim of the Bush administration. So it desperately wants to convince Iraqis that its only interests in Iraq are to promote democracy and go home. Promulgating a constitution is the symbolic way to accomplish both objectives. Or, at least many Americans believe it is.


Iraqis are not so sure. They have reason to doubt that a piece of paper is really a "foundation stone" for independence and democracy. They see history repeating itself: It was almost exactly 80 years ago, in 1924, that British officials similarly advised and guided a committee of carefully selected and supposedly representative Iraqis to write a constitution. It, too, proclaimed democracy.

After World War I, as new countries emerged from the wreck of the defeated German, Austrian and Ottoman empires, statesmen rushed to write ideal constitutions. They paid little attention to the social, economic or political structure or condition of the target country. Iraq's constitution, for example, was borrowed from New Zealand's. On paper it looked good; the phrases rang with eloquence but were not anchored in reality. It was not a foundation stone but a weak reed upon which to lean. Ambitious Iraqis simply paid it no attention: In 34 years Iraq suffered a dozen coups d'etat, the last of which brought the Ba'ath party to power.

For the British, the 1924 constitution also failed to make possible a safe exit. Britain overtly ruled Iraq eight more years until 1932, and then, more or less covertly, remained in control for another 26 years, until the 1958 coup overthrew the Iraqi monarchy. "Going home safely," as the British had hoped to do decades earlier, is the second aim proclaimed today by the Bush administration.

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