Iraq's struggles echo U.S. past

Democracy: Distrust among delegates can lead to success or failure in the constitutional process.

August 28, 2005|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

FEUDING politicians who had little trust for one another. A secretive process that was frustratingly slow in producing a document that would be the foundation of a new nation. Compromises that made little sense and seemed only to plant the seeds of future discord.

That could describe the various delegates trying to come up with a constitution for Iraq. Or it could describe the delegates who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to try to do the same for the fledgling United States.

Though the levels of enmity and distrust are often decried as poisoning the possibility of Iraqis ever agreeing on a new constitution, in Philadelphia two centuries ago, distrust was probably a crucial element in the success of the document those delegates wrote. It was distrust that led to a system of checks and balances that insured against a concentration of power.

That said, there is no doubt that too much distrust can stymie the constitutional process, bringing it to a halt in a flurry of recrimination and violence. That that didn't happen in Philadelphia - and may still in Iraq - is probably due in large part to the level of disagreements and distrust among the participants.

"All constitutions are to a degree peace treaties," says Karol Soltan, associate professor in the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. "What they did in Philadelphia was to some degree a peace treaty, but to a much lesser degree than what is going on in Baghdad where you have three communities that are already in the midst of a civil war, a low level one."

What is going on in Iraq as it tries to formulate a new constitution is a tightrope walk between chaos and compromise, between those who would see the process fall apart and those who would come up with words that can assure people on various sides of the fence that those on the other side cannot abuse their power.

"There is an element of - as Ronald Reagan used to say - trust but verify," says Soltan who just returned from Iraq after a month of consulting with the Kurds on the constitution talks. "The balance between trusting and verifying will be different depending on the degree to which the shadow of a civil war is present."

That shadow did not loom over the delegates in Philadelphia, largely because they took the issue that would lead to this country's civil war - slavery - and essentially swept it under the rug where it stayed for a generation or so. If they hadn't done that, historians agree, the delegates from the southern states would have walked out and there would be no hope of a new document to replace the Articles of Confederation (which, by the way, these delegates were empowered only to modify, not replace).

The so-called Great Compromise of the convention - which confined its discussions of slavery to the slave trade and fugitive slave laws - made slaves count as three-fifths of a person. The South wanted slaves counted when determining the number of seats in the new House of Representatives. The North did not. If the South had been given seats on the basis of its slave population, it would have dominated the new government.

"It was the so-called `Great Compromise' because it was only way that the North felt that they could come up with a plan that would, one, keep southern delegates at the convention and, two, not totally relinquish control to the South," says Jack Fruchtman, director of the program in Law and American Civilization in Towson University's political science department.

But it was absurd on its face and showed that the slavery issue had not been solved, only sidestepped.

That was not the case with other issues on which there were healthy - not dangerous - levels of distrust.

Trying to make sure that no group would be able to dominate, the delegates came up with three branches of government that included an independent judiciary. With the small states fearing domination by the larger ones - Rhode Island boycotted the convention - they came up with the representative House and the two-seats-per-state Senate.

Fearing the tyranny of a king like the one they had just fought, they put severe limitations on the power of the new chief executive, the president. And with a great deal of skepticism about a central government, they left large amounts of power in the hands of the states, which still held the fundamental loyalty of most delegates.

These elements of the government that emerged from that Constitution have helped keep it flexible and responsive and workable for over two centuries.

And when the delegates took the document they had written to the people for ratification, they ran into another level of distrust from those who thought this elitist bunch of men had written themselves into positions of power. In return for votes for ratification, these people demanded - and got - a Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments that installed guarantees of basic individual liberties into the document.

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