Iraq’s constitutional conflicts mirror our own

Posted: June 12, 2005

Sunday, June 12, 2005  Poughkeepsie Journal, NY


When a constitution was drafted to form the United States of America, not everyone agreed with that course of action. Gov. George Clinton of New York was quite opposed to it.

In Europe, the French and the Dutch have just voted down the concept of a European constitution. If the road to a constitution was difficult in the United States, and today the Europeans still struggle to draft a mutually acceptable constitution, why are so many people impatient with the democratic process in Iraq?

Having spent time recently with many Iraqi politicians, I witnessed firsthand what many of our Founding Fathers must have experienced. I foresaw the problems that could exist even after Iraq ratifies its constitution.

Iraqis, just as our Founding Fathers did, are debating whether their legislature should be composed of one house or two. Some of our Constitutional Convention delegates argued that two houses would imply that a British-style House of Lords would become part of our country’s fabric. That smacked of British aristocracy, unacceptable after fighting the British for our independence. Many wanted to keep most of the power in the House of Representatives to ensure that popular opinion guides the government. The delegates finally compromised by establishing a Senate to protect those states with smaller populations.

That same dynamic is occurring in Iraq today. The Shiites could substitute for the more populous states that favored a single house representing majority public opinion. The Kurds, Sunnis and Christians share the concern of our less populous states and look for the protections afforded by a second house. Drafting the constitution of Iraq will certainly be as intense a battle as was drafting our own constitution.

The Founding Fathers learned with interest about other governing systems in Britain and France, an opportunity Iraqis did not have. Under Saddam Hussein, contact with the outside world was minimal. Many of the Iraqi politicians do not yet fully appreciate the subtleties afforded by such differences as having one house versus two. Living under Saddam, they were isolated from many concepts related to a constitution. Despite this, they are forming governments, incorporating diverse views and beginning to draft their own constitution.


Once the constitution becomes their basic law, however, a new set of problems will likely arise.

Again, Iraq will not be an anomaly, for the United States experienced events that threatened its constitution. Political factions could easily attempt to undermine Iraq’s constitution if they do not get their way.

After the adoption of our constitution, John Jay, another New York governor, negotiated a treaty to establish U.S. neutrality in a war between France and Britain. Surprisingly, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson tried to subvert the constitution in an effort to reverse the treaty.

Our Constitution establishes that foreign policy will be the purview of the Senate. While drafting the Constitution, Madison argued this would protect foreign policy from the day-to-day whims of the House of Representatives and allow the Senate, with its more long-term view, to handle negotiations with foreign powers. However, with Madison and Jefferson’s loyalties lying with the French, they chose to undermine this treaty by arguing that the House, instead of the Senate, should oversee foreign policy. Thankfully, they were unsuccessful at undermining the nubilous constitution for short-term political gain.

These historic footnotes are often overlooked and could better help us understand the present constitutional dilemma in Iraq. Much like the turmoil that surrounded the Jay treaty, certain Iraqi factions will, without doubt, attempt a few dangerous maneuvers to undermine their constitution for short-term political gain.

Understanding our experiences will temper our quick judgment of the Iraqis, and although Iraqis have not known democracy for quite some time, they may have their constitution ratified before Europe does.

Daniel Odescalchi of Pleasant Valley is president of Strategic Advantage International and a consultant with the Center for International Private Enterprise. He has worked in emerging democracies in Eastern Europe, Bosnia and presently with the center in Iraq.