Tuesday, August 16, 2005

A small difference of opinion

The Iraqi parliament voted Monday to extend by a week the deadline for completing the country's new constitution. The main areas that remained unsettled are, reportly, how to address issues of regional sovereignty and the role of Sharia law. It's hard to think of more fundamental questions for a country (you almost want to put this word in quotes) like Iraq. Makes you wonder how the parliament has been spending its time for the last six months.

Journalists and politicians have been referring to the Iraqi negotiators as "Framers", a term that evokes the creators of the American constitution. Rhetorical flourishes aside, there are interesting historical analogies with the process by which our founding document was drafted and the United States came into being. This isn't an academic point, since it's our own democratic institutions, or the myths surrounding them, that are being used to frame the process of Iraqi nation-building. The tenor of debate there hasn't risen to level of the Federalist papers, but surely Madison, Hamilton and Jefferson -- and those less well-known folk on the other side -- would recognize the importance of the questions besetting the Iraqi parliament. Unresolved differences around regional divisions of power were what led, in part, to our Civil War sixty years after ratification -- though it's unlikely the factions in Iraq will wait that long. And we're still debating the implications of the Establishment clause.

Of course, the historical contrasts are even more obvious, starting with the character of the "Iraqi revolution" and the real sources of political and military power in the region. The American states could reasonably claim to have freed themselves, though with a lot of help from France. The Iraqis were freed by, well, the United States. To make a legitimate comparison, you have to imagine a North America circa 1795 where the French, having whipped George III largely by themselves, remained the dominant military power on the continent, while ceding the name of sovereignty to the locals. Locals that included, in this instance, a vast and resentful population of former slaves, eager to claim majority political rights in the south, along with control of the critical economic resources they used to pick for their ex-masters. And in the north an enclave of well-armed and well-organized Native Americans, demanding their own autonomous region.

You have to wonder whether the French would have been so ready to keep their troops and warships posted half-way around the world, especially with political distractions at home. And you also have to wonder whether the Madisons, Hamiltons and Jeffersons would've stayed inside the early American "green zone" arguing high constitutional principles, or stood on the outside, keeping their powder dry for a fight that in many ways had barely begun.