Democracy Takes Root, Slowly, In Post-Saddam Iraq

Jerry Nachman, the late newsman, used to tell his anchorpersons to show “contempt for the camera.” Would that someone had told Cindy Sheehan. Primitive peoples who refused to be photographed because they feared that the black box would take their souls were more right than the Western ethnographers who crouched behind it knew. Most Augusts, the beast of attention focuses on shark attacks. This August, it decided to focus on grieving-mother attacks.

The anti-war left, which has made Ms. Sheehan their Joan of Arc, shows yet again that it doesn’t know when to stop, or even how to proceed. They turn grief into argument, and argument into apocalypse. Three years ago, they transformed the funeral of Senator Paul Wellstone, who had died with his family and aides in a plane crash, into a grotesque pre-election political revival meeting. This year, they took the death in battle of Specialist Casey Sheehan and turned his mother’s pain into an agitprop Antigone.

It would be wrong to treat Ms. Sheehan as she treats her son—as the pawn of sinister forces. Casey Sheehan enlisted and re-enlisted. Cindy Sheehan saw President George W. Bush once, then decided she had to see him again. Casey Sheehan’s enemies were deadly; Cindy Sheehan’s new friends are seductive. But each chose his fate.

Did Specialist Sheehan die for sharia law? The question arises following news that the proposed Iraqi Constitution will declare that Islam is a main source of Iraqi law. The indefinite article “a” is reportedly a compromise, wrung by the Kurds from the Shiites, who wished to identify Islam as “the” source of Iraqi law. It doesn’t look like the Iraqi Civil Liberties Union will have much to work with.

Constitutions aren’t made in a day. Even believers in original intent must acknowledge that many intentions and false starts go into the process. Our first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, took a year to write, four to ratify and six to junk. Our second, current Constitution was ratified only on the understanding that a Bill of Rights would be added. Even so, it didn’t manage to stop the Civil War, 70 years down the line. The constitutional history of France, our twin sister in liberty, has been even more checkered. Britain honors its constitution so much that is has never written it down.

What will it mean for Islam in Iraq to be “a” source of law? Something more than the established church in England—there are probably as many mosque-going Muslims in Britain now as there are regular Anglican pew-sitters. And something less than the haggard theocracy of next-door Iran. What other sources will aid Islam in its law-giving task? Will the words of the Iraqi Constitution itself have any independent force? Who will interpret Islam, and who will interpret the Constitution? Will the fact that there are two Islams in Iraq, Shiite and Sunni, and various shades of opinion within them, be a source of pluralism and strength, as religious diversity is in the United States and (most of the time) in India, or will it be a source of fratricide and crime, as the Protestant/Catholic dance of death is in Northern Ireland?

It would be a black mark against us if we didn’t insist, as strongly as we could, that the rights of women be guaranteed. Saddam’s record where women were concerned was perverse. He took them out of their veils and put them to work, but the result of their integration into Saddamite society was that they were free to obey him, and to be raped by his sons whenever they caught Uday’s or Qusay’s eye. Baathism was an equal-opportunity oppressor. It would be sad indeed for Iraqi women to substitute the switchblade of dictatorship for the slow strangle of state-enforced religious norms. Dangerous, too, for Iraqi men—and, ultimately, perhaps, for New York office workers and London subway riders, since a culture of female enslavement is a culture of masculine fantasy and frustration. Honor breeds terror even more than grievance, since a steroidal sense of honor looks for grievances even where none exist.

We should insist, yet the Iraqis will ultimately do what they want (subject to their own later rethinking and horse-trading). That is what democracy means, and the Iraqis are enjoying a taste of it for the first time in decades—maybe ever—rather than submitting to the judgment of Baathists, Hashemites or Brits. Democracy is tough in the Middle East, where there is no culture of self-rule; Robert Strausz-Hupe, once our ambassador to Turkey, said that the Turks believe in democracy because Kemal Ataturk told them to. Democracy can be tough anywhere; H.L. Mencken defined it as giving people what they want, good and hard. Whatever ensues, we have the satisfaction of knowing that Saddam, who sought to harness W.M.D. programs with the world’s second-largest oil reserves and the world’s largest grudge against us, is gone; that the likes of Abu Nidal and the 1993 bombers of the World Trade Center will have to seek terror subsidies elsewhere; and that the Iraqis are better off than when he oppressed them and the oil-for-food program fleeced them. Those are achievements that are both noble and self-interested.

It is arguable, even so, that there were other, more important wars to fight, or that the Iraq war should have been fought differently. We might have trusted Saddam’s incompetence a little more, and the world’s intelligence agencies a little less, on the question of actual, up-and-running W.M.D. Donald Rumsfeld has been criticized for not sending enough troops, but if we had sent less, as he originally wished, maybe we would have had more to take down Syria as well. If George Tenet had been fired earlier, we might know what was happening in Iran. These are real questions, and they persist, in different forms, even as the new Iraq struggles for stability. A shame that America isn’t asking them—one of the limitations of democracy.