Can U.S. Find Fertile Soil for Democracy and Liberty in Iraq?

For some, the Iraq constitution-writing process has called to mind America’s founding. But whether the Iraqi document – for which the original Aug. 15 deadline has been extended – will deliver liberty as well as democracy remains tragically uncertain.

The failure of Washington to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq caused the Bush administration to fasten on democracy promotion as its justification for war. If coercive nation building can succeed anywhere, it should be in Iraq – liberated and occupied by U.S. troops.

Elections for a transitional government began the process.

Alas, Washington’s candidate, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, developed no serious popular following.

As for the constitution, would-be nation-builders in the United States were free with advice. The constitution should enshrine women’s rights and protect religious liberties. It should create a federal structure.

American activists protested and Washington officials cajoled. Preeta D. Bansal and Nina Shea, members of the U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom, wrote "Now is not the time for the international community to take a hands-off approach, which it may be tempted to do by a false sense of cultural relativism and a misguided ‘respect’ for a flawed ‘democratic’ process."

Similarly, demanded the New Republic: "The administration must bring to bear all the leverage that billions in reconstruction funding and the presence of the 138,000 American troops stationed in Iraq can provide." Basma Fakri, president of the Women’s Alliance for a Democratic Iraq, said Washington should let the constitution writers know "that Iraq should be free."

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad actively intervened in Baghdad, proclaiming America’s support for equal rights, for instance: "There can be no compromise." Alas, the actual result probably doesn’t matter much.

Obviously, constitutions are important. But only if they are enforced. And that requires a particular civic culture, political discourse, and legal regime. At the moment, Iraq appears to lack all three.

Nor can the United States provide the necessary means of enforcement.

Today, American military occupation does not guarantee basic security. It is even less capable of ensuring equal rights.

Thus, the new constitution will do little good if ignored by political authorities. Even formal democratic governance does not necessarily prevent authoritarian abuse of power.

The Soviet Union was notable for the professed liberality of its constitution – and complete irrelevance of that document. Similar is the experience of smaller hellholes dotting the globe, many of which officially modeled their governments after the American or British system.

If the Iraqi constitution ends up as a liberal document in an illiberal society, it would not be completely valueless. Such a blueprint would offer idealistic goals and provide a legal basis for real reform if the political culture changed.

However, the most pressing task for those concerned about Iraq’s future is to promote within Iraqi society a greater appreciation of the importance of liberty. Democracy is a worthy means, but it is only a means. The objective is a free society.

And this is what makes America’s challenge in Iraq so great.

"The idea that 1,800 American troops died so Iraqi women can enjoy the full blessings of religious medievalism ought to disturb the Bush administration and the American public," editorialized the New Republic. Absolutely.

"No American blood should be spilt for the creation of a sharia rule state," said Nina Shea. Very true.

But it is far easier to teach the technical forms of political democracy than the civil forms of political discourse.

Without a tolerant civic culture, real democracy is unlikely to flourish. And given the violent resistance against U.S. occupation forces, Washington has neither the time and nor the ability to so educate the Iraqi people.

In fact, Washington’s best policy is to do less. The U.S. government should begin withdrawing its troops.

America should emphasize its intention to expeditiously pull out all of its forces and disclaim any interest in acquiring permanent bases. Iraq’s destiny will be in the hands of Iraqis.

More helpful might be the efforts of private groups. Without Washington’s obvious political agenda, they can develop personal ties, model civil behavior and teach liberty’s meaning.

Iraq’s constitutional negotiations should be seen as a start, not an end. They have opened the first political discussions in decades. They have highlighted the importance of a vibrant legal and political process.

Yet to be built, however, is the foundation of a truly liberal society: a belief in freedom and a willingness to accept adverse political outcomes. Unfortunately, creating such a democratic ethic almost certainly lies beyond Washington’s best efforts.