Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow of occupation.
Whatever the parliamentarians in Iraq do to try to prevent total meltdown, their efforts are compromised by the fact that their power grows from the barrel of someone else's gun. When US President George W. Bush picked up the phone last week to urge the negotiators to sign the constitution, he reminded Iraqis that their representatives -- though elected -- remain the administrators of his protectorate. While US and British troops stay in Iraq, no government there can make an undisputed claim to legitimacy. Nothing can be resolved in that country until the occupying armies leave.
This is by no means the only problem confronting the people who drafted Iraq's constitution. The refusal by the Shias and the Kurds to make serious compromises on federalism, which threatens to deprive the central, Sunni-dominated areas of oil revenues, leaves the Sunnis with little choice but to reject the agreement in next month's referendum. The result could be civil war.
Can anything be done? It might be too late. But it seems to me that the transitional assembly has one last throw of the dice. This is to abandon the constitution it has signed, and Bush's self-serving timetable, and start again with a different democratic design.
The problem with the way the constitution was produced is the problem afflicting almost all of the world's democratic processes. The deliberations were back to front.
First, the members of the constitutional committee, shut inside the green zone, argue over every dot and comma; then they present the whole thing -- 25 pages in English translation -- to the people for a yes or no answer. The question and the answer are meaningless.
All politically conscious people, having particular interests and knowing that perfection in politics is impossible, will, on reading a complex document like this, see that it is good in some places and bad in others. They might recognize some articles as being bad for them but good for society as a whole; they might recognize others as being good or bad for almost everyone. What, then, does "yes" or "no" mean?
Let me be more precise. How, for example, could anyone agree with both these statements, from articles 2 and 19 respectively?
"Islam is the official religion of the state and is a basic source of legislation: no law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam" (in other words, the supreme authority in law is God), and "The judiciary is independent, with no power above it other than the law."
Or both these, from articles 14 and 148?
"Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination because of sex, ethnicity, nationality, origin, color, religion, sect, belief, opinion or social or economic status," and "Members of the presidential council must have left the dissolved party [the Baath] at least 10 years before its fall if they were members in it."
Faced with such contradictions, no thoughtful elector can wholly endorse or reject this document. Of course, this impossible choice is what the British people would have confronted (but at 10 times the length and 100 times the complexity) had they been asked to vote on the European constitution. The yes-or-no question put to them would have been just as stupid, and just as stupefying. It treats the population like idiots and -- because they cannot refine their responses -- reduces them to idiots. But while it would have merely enhanced Britain's sense of alienation from the European project, for the Iraqis the meaninglessness of the question could be a matter of life and death.