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Feldman, a New York University professor of constitutional law who briefly worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority on preparation of Iraq's interim constitution, argues, "Having thrust the Iraqis into [their current] situation, we have an obligation to enable them to climb out of it." It would, indeed, be interesting to see an argument made about whether the United States has such an ethical obligation, and if so, how far does it extend. Unfortunately, Feldman makes no such case: he simply presumes that the United States has the duty to create in Iraq, in his words, "a legitimate democratic state." That is a remarkably tall order for such a fragile nation with such limited democratic traditions. The presumption that this is what we owe Iraq is breathtaking, yet it is an article of faith as much on the liberal Left (from which Feldman comes) as on the neoconservative Right. And the hubris extends to confidence that Washington is well placed to carry out this far-reaching transformation of Iraq's political culture; for all his caveats about how hard the task will be, Feldman insists that an active U.S. role is the essential ingredient for success. One might have thought that the nationalist resentments at the U.S. presence and the obvious disappointment of Iraqis in what Washington has been able to accomplish in the first year and a half since Saddam's fall might have led to a bit more humility. But it remains an article of faith for Feldman that if only the United States buckles down to the task, Iraq can become a democracy soon.

Feldman's optimism about Washington's ability to transform Iraqi politics would be more convincing if he demonstrated a better understanding of the obstacles ahead. His account concentrates on what he calls the transformative effect of elections. At least that is a step forward from some earlier writings,[1] in which he argued that a well-crafted constitution would be revolutionary—a stunningly naive view in light of the history of constitutions that remain dead letters (perhaps the most democratic constitution in history was that of Stalin's Soviet Union). In his effusive praise for how elections "provide large-scale accountability" and "reveal public preferences," Feldman passes over the minor problem that most elections to date in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East have done nothing of the sort. The region is well acquainted with elections that rubber-stamp power arrangements based on force, not on the people's will. To date, the U.S. appointees to the Interim Governing Council have maneuvered to keep in their hands the reins of power. Few in Iraq or the Middle East will believe that Iraq is a democracy until the first government is peacefully voted out of office, an event not likely to happen any time soon.

[1] The New York Times, Sept. 24, Nov. 13, 2003; Feb. 20, Sept. 24, 2004.