In the U.S. we revere our founding fathers. In many circles, if a policy can be shown to be to be incompatible with our their intentions, this is considered a decisive objection against it. This reverence is also revealed in the demand for strict constructionism – judges who refuse to deviate from the letter of the constitution. The virtues of this view are often deemed self-evident.
But the current situation in Iraq should give us some pause. (It won’t, but it should.) If the Iraqis are able to ratify a constitution, and if Iraq should become stable, then at some point in the distant future Iraqis may also appeal to the intentions of their founding fathers in settling their disputes – the very men who are currently hammering out a compromise. Two hundred years from now, it’s entirely possible that political matters in Iraq will be settled by considering the intentions of the current Iraqi negotiators and representatives. In 2205 some Iraqi might go on national television and defend his political views on the grounds that it is what Ahmad Chalabi intended, and be taken seriously. Books may even be written trying to decipher Chalabi’s intentions from his parliamentary speeches – books that are taken to have deep political relevance. That is absurd. And if it’s absurd for them, it’s absurd for us.
Why is it absurd? Well, for one, it’s hard to believe that whatever framework the Iraqis agree to (if they agree at all) will have any relevance for Iraq in 2205. Second, the current Iraqi negotiators are a diverse lot. Their motivations range from the noble and altruistic to the ignoble and selfish. Our founding fathers were just like that. They were not saints or Gods. Like the current Iraqi negotiators, they were people with sectarian concerns who were trying to get as much as possible while giving away as little as possible. Thus there is no reason to regard their deliberations as a decisive guide to all future policy decisions.
The political struggle over Iraq’s constitution should persuade us to lower the esteem in which we hold our own founding fathers. At the very least, it should make us less reliant on their intentions for determining future policies, and it should make us question the importance of strict constructionism. But so far it hasn’t done any of these things.