The constitutional wrangling in Baghdad is par for the course in Iraq’s nation-building — as least as filtered through the Western media. As the deadline approached we read the whole business about to go belly up, there’s no agreement on the way forward, Washington’s will have to admit it called things disastrously wrong and step in to salvage what it can by postponing the handover to an Iraqi administration/the first free elections/the draft constitution/whatever.
This time round, we were reliably informed the constitution was turning into a theocratic rout of Kurds, women and any other identity groups the media could rustle up. I’m not sure what the homosexual scene is like in Fallujah, but no doubt the Shi’ites were railroading through constitutional prohibitions on same-sex partner benefits for gay imams, too.
Iraqi women were better off under Saddam, various types told us, though the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wags ran a David Horsey cartoon showing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assuring President Bush, “They won’t get stoned to death as long as they keep their burqas on tight.” Ha-ha. So what do we find in Article 151 of the Iraqi constitution? “No less than 25 percent of Council of Deputies seats go to women.” I’m not a great fan of quotas but for purposes of comparison, after more than 200 years, 14 percent of U.S. senators are women.
The only burqa on too tight here is the one David Horsey’s pulled over his head with the eye-slit round the back. Has he ever met an Iraqi woman?
Iraqi nation-building coverage is like one almighty cable-news Hurricane Ahmed. The network correspondents climb into their oilskins and waders and wrap themselves round a lamp-post on the boardwalk and insist civil war will make landfall any minute now, devastating the handover/elections/constitution. But it never does. Hurricane Ahmed is simply the breezy back and forth of healthy politicking.
Remember the Afghan war? On Nov. 7, 2001, the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd sneered at the Northern Alliance for being a lot of useless layabout deadbeats. “They smoke and complain more than they fight,” she scoffed. A couple of days later, Kabul fell so swiftly that on Nov. 14, Miss Dowd switched smoothly — with only the mildest case of columnar whiplash — to whining that the hitherto layabout Northern Alliance had “embarrassed” us with their “savage force.”
That’s the way our Iraqi allies work, too. They must be nudged along — which is why the U.S. strategy of hard (or hard-ish) deadlines works well — but in the end they get there.
“What makes a good constitution?” asked National Review’s Rick Brookhiser the other day. “Standoffs and horsetrades, frozen in time.” The English-speaking world’s most significant and enduring constitutional settlements — Magna Carta, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights — were compromises of rival power blocs: King John vs. England’s barons, Federalists vs anti-Federalists.
Mr. Brookhiser didn’t add that the least enduring are those drafted by an ideologically homogeneous ruling class: This year’s much ballyhooed European Union constitution, for example, was dead on arrival. By contrast, the constitution being hammered out in Baghdad reflects political reality. What naysayers cite as the main drawback of Iraq — it’s not a real country, just a phony-baloney jurisdiction cobbled together to suit the administrative convenience of the British Colonial Office, never gonna work, bound to fall apart — is, in fact, its big advantage: If you want to start an experiment in Middle Eastern liberty, where better than a nation split three ways where no one group can easily dominate the other two? The new constitution provides something for everyone:
The Shi’ites get an acknowledgment Islam is “the official religion of the state,” just as the Church of England is the official church of that state — though, unlike Anglican bishops, imams won’t get permanent seats in the Iraqi legislature.
The Kurds get a loose federal structure in which just about everything except national defense and foreign policy is reserved to regions and provinces. I said in the week after Baghdad fell the Kurds would settle for being Quebec to Iraq’s Canada, and so they have.
The Sunnis, who ran Iraq from their days as Britain’s colonial managing class right up to the toppling of Saddam, don’t like the federal structure, not least because the Kurds and Shi’ites have most of the oil. So they’ve been wooed with an arrangement whereby the country’s oil revenue will be divided nationally on a per capita basis.
If you had been asked in 2003 to devise an ideal constitution for Iraq’s very non-ideal circumstances, it would look something like this: a highly decentralized federation that accepts the reality Iraq is a Muslim nation but reserves political power for elected legislators — and divides the oil revenue fairly.
And if it doesn’t work? Well, that’s what the Sunni are twitchy about. If Ba’athist dead-enders and imported Islamonuts from Saudi and Syria want to make Iraq ungovernable, the country will dissolve into a democratic Kurdistan, a democratic Shiastan, and a moribund Sunni squat in the middle. And, in the grander scheme, that wouldn’t be so terrible either.
In Iraq right now the glass is about two-thirds full. Those two thirds will not be drained down to Sunni Triangle levels of despair. There are a million new cars on the road since 2003, a statistic that doubtless just lost us warhawks Sierra Club’s endorsement but doesn’t sound like a nation mired in hopelessness. A new international airport has opened in the north to cope with the Kurdish tourist and economic boom. Faruk Mustafa Rasool is building a 28-story five-star hotel with a revolving restaurant and a cable-car link to downtown Sulaimaniya.
To be sure, we shoulda done this, and we shoulda done that. Yet nonetheless Iraq advances day by day. The real quagmire is at home, where the kinkily gleeful relish of defeatism manifested by Cindy Sheehan, Joan Baez, Ted Kennedy et al. bears less and less relationship to anything happening over there. Iraq’s future is a matter for the Iraqis now — which given the U.S. media, Democrat blowhards like Joe Biden and Republican squishes like Chuck Hagel is just as well.
Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.