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A judicious change of course
Question of the Day
As Winston Churchill quipped, the United States invariably acts wisely after exhausting all of the alternatives. Our shifting policy for governing post-Saddam Iraq substantiates Churchill’s acerbity.
The United States initially aimed within weeks to install an interim Iraqi government composed of a witch’s brew of unelected indigenous and exile figures. On April 28, we sponsored a political conclave of about 300 Iraqis and applauded their call for a national conference to meet by the end of May to select a transitional government. On May 5, Jay Garner, erstwhile administrator, declared: “Next week, or by the second weekend in May, you’ll see the beginning of a nucleus of a temporary Iraqi government; a government with an Iraqi face on it that is totally dealing with the coalition.”
Such puerile optimism was instantly discredited. Chaos and criminality stalked Baghdad and other cities afflicted by power vacuums. No Iraqi leader commanded either national respect or national political support. Local mullahs in the south mushroomed, issuing theological edicts jarring to democratic grammar and practices. The rule of law was more talked about than seen. Arab-Kurd disputes over homes in the north turned nasty. Consensus and harmony among Iraq’s unstatesmanlike statesman proved chimerical. Accordingly, a new civilian administrator, L. Paul Bremer, announced on May 16 an indefinite postponement of a national assembly and interim government, a concession to facts on the ground and political realities.
But more should have been said. The long suffering people of Iraq will remain politically paralyzed and economically handicapped until the governing authority is both unambiguous and permanent for the foreseeable future. The sole candidate that fits the bill is the United States. President Bush himself should pledge that we will pay any price, bear any burden in Iraq to insure the flowering of democracy and the rule of law. Whether the task necessitates United States direct rule for five, 10 or 20 years, the president should trumpet, we will not falter. Even a longer U.S. stewardship was required in the Philippines.
The enormity of the democratization challenge in Iraq can be appreciated by a comparison with the United States. Preceding our constitutional convention of 1787, a democratic culture and democratic state governments were mature. Article 39 of the Magna Charta of 1215 had celebrated the rule of law and individual rights. The English Bill of Rights of 1689 foreshadowed our own constitutional Bill of Rights. Colonial charters and laws in America honored freedom and the rule of law. Article V of the Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges of 1701, for example, declared: “That all Criminals shall have the same Privileges and Witnesses and Council as their Prosecutors.”
In 1735, a jury acquittal of New York printer John Peter Zenger accused of seditious libel had fortified freedom of the press. James Otis, in 1761, had denounced writs of assistance as a violation of the sacred right of privacy, anticipating Pitt the Elder in the British Parliament debating searches: “The poorest man in his cottage may bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter; the rain may enter; but the King of England cannot enter — all his force dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!” As the U.S. Supreme Court later acknowledged, “There can be no doubt that Pitt’s address … echoed and re-echoed throughout the Colonies.”
The Declaration of Independence saluted equality before the law, individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and government by the consent of the governed. In 1776, James Madison penned his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance” against an assessment bill to aid religion, the forebear of the religious clauses of the First Amendment. State constitutions featured muscular protections of individual rights, a separation of powers, and independent judiciaries empowered to review the legality of legislative or executive action. Article XXIX of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, for instance, declared: “It is essential to the preservation of rights of every individual, his life, liberty, property and character, that there be an impartial interpretation of the laws, and administration of justice. It is therefore not only the best policy, but for the security of the rights of the people, and of every citizen, that the judges of the supreme judicial court should hold their offices as long as they behave themselves well; and that they should have honorable salaries ascertained and established by standing laws.”
The political maturity of the American people had been born of protests against the Stamp Act and a tea tax that culminated in the Boston Tea Party. It was further developed in the first and second continental congresses and in the establishment of state governments. The Continental Army had planted loyalties to the nation as opposed to parochial sentiments. And George Washington had already become a popular national obelisk and consensus president: a man of irreproachable character and judgment whose selfless devotion to country set a standard for the ages to which the wise and honest can repair.
The constitutional convention of 1787 thus built on a firm and tall democratic mountain. It additionally profited from the unexcelled scholarship, political prudence and seasoning of the 55 luminaries who participated in the landmark enterprise.
At present, Iraq sports neither the history nor culture nor practices that gave birth to our constitutional success: no counterparts to Magna Charta, the English Bill of Rights, John Peter Zenger, the Declaration of Independence, the Memorial and Remonstrance championing religious liberty, etc. No profit can come from blinking the obvious. Democracy in Iraq will require long years of direct U.S. governance and the inescapably lead-footed inculcation of a democratic culture novel to the Tigris and Euphrates.
Bruce Fein is a founding partner of Fein & Fein.
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