Reality Check in Iraq

President Bush and his secretary of State put the best face they could on this week's missed deadline for a new constitution in Iraq.

But the failure of Iraqi negotiators to come to an agreement must have disappointed them - not just because Washington is keen to keep to the political timetable in Iraq, but because the negotiators appear to be deeply divided on issues fundamental to a democracy.

The postponed deadline of Monday, however, can serve as a reality check on an overly ambitious expectation of what was to emerge from the bargaining. Indeed, the administration is lowering its expectations regarding the near-term achievement of key goals in Iraq - security, economic stability, and democracy.

Ideally, a new constitution would legally anchor Iraq as a federal and secular country, sharing its oil wealth fairly among its provinces, and protecting human and civil rights for all, notably women and minorities. Yet, as of now, Shiite, Kurdish, and Sunni negotiators can unite on not one of those principles.

At this point, it would be well to remember other countries' experiences with constitutions.

First, these bedrock documents can evolve for the better over time. America's history proves that, with the Bill of Rights not ratified until four years after the signing of the Constitution in 1787, and the last amendment not ratified until 1992.

These documents can also be open to wide interpretation, and in some countries, simply ignored. That's not to endorse shoving them aside (the Iraqis saw plenty of that under Saddam Hussein), but to point out that constitutions in practice can differ greatly from what's on paper. The new Afghan Constitution, for instance, says "no law can be contrary to Islam," but President Hamid Karzai stresses secular governance.

And let's imagine that negotiators punt the toughest issues into the future, as many fear. Well, that's exactly what the Founding Fathers did with slavery.

That was not a proud moment in American history, and the US paid for it with continued brutality and injustice, as well as a horrific civil war. But the political reality was that differences on that particular issue simply could not be bridged at that time.

Let's hope that the threat of civil war in Iraq and other potential consequences of the failure of negotiators can force them to find common ground - and at an elevation as close to democratic principles as possible.

But a foundational document can't get ahead of the public. Democratic countries saw that when the French rejected the new European Union constitution this year. Forging consensus on national values takes time, whether in Europe, the US, or Iraq.

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