SKIP THE PRELIMINARIES

8/3/2005 1:49:13 AM

"Here's a simple suggestion," one can imagine it having been said in high State Department councils a few months ago. "Change our ambassador to Iraq." Nobody could really frame a case against the performance as ambassador to Iraq of John D. Negroponte, a senior U.S. statesman who had even served as ambassador to the United Nations. "But John ... Negroponte ... in Iraq? My suggestion is replace Negroponte, who sounds like he belongs in the Latin American division, and get somebody who sounds like one of theirs."

"Like?"

"I accept the challenge. Like -- bring out your pencils -- Z-a-l-m-a-y K-h-a-l-i-l-z-a-d. He is an American, sure, but his background is in Afghanistan. We put that guy in Baghdad and people will think they are talking problems over with one of theirs, not with some graduate of the War College."

And so it happened. Ambassador Khalilzad is in the middle of things in Iraq attempting what seems the impossible, which is to preside -- in the background, to be sure -- over the development of a national constitution to be presented by Aug. 15 as the constitution for Iraq, north and south, east and west.

The case against even attempting to write a constitution wrested from paradigms was very strong, but the framers have thought that unless the burden is taken up, the forces inside Iraq which tend to civil strife will never be leashed. Ambassador Khalilzad has stressed that the constitution almost needs to be understood as a document that will do less than satisfy the demands of contending parties. The Kurds, for instance, who have enjoyed relative autonomy ever since the 1991 war, aren't compellingly attracted to a union with the Shiites and the Sunnis, so how many concessions need to be made to them in the constitution?

Mr. Khalilzad had much experience in developing the current government of Afghanistan, which experience will be useful in the Iraqi situation, but it does not lead automatically to the thorny details of a constitution that has to be agreeable to the religious sects of the nation, to Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Yezidi, and Assyrian Christians, among others.

Some kind of a federal structure needs to come out of it all, and many point to the government of South Africa. South Africa got on pretty well with its federated structure, but it was never divided as sharply as are Iraqis, with their different life-and-death allegiances to different versions of the Sharia, which seeks to interpret Quranic law.

Most recently a division arose in the matter of women's rights. Mr. Khalilzad has laid down the law, that women's rights are to be held as sacred as men's rights, which is all very well, but requires adaptation to different protocols involving, for instance, inheritance and divorce.

Communicants of western ideals cannot at this point go back and say simply that Iraq's three major sectarian divisions will need to work out their own compromises on the authority of the laws, federal and local. We engaged the challenge as arising from the constitutional loins of the West, and we speak as if western accomplishments that required generations of nurture can and should be simply implanted in the new constitution. If we were devising a mathematics textbook for the schools, we would incorporate in it known advances in geometry, rather than proceed as though such refinements would be left to be intuited by Iraqi students.

In the United States we took 100 years to go from the promulgation of laws of equality, to a civil order that demanded true equality -- from 1864 and the end of the Civil War, to 1964 and the passage of the civil rights bills. Mr. Khalilzad is asking, in respect of women's rights, that we begin right away with the third act.

It is a very important public question: Will we succeed? Are we traveling at a rate so ideologically prepossessing as to scorn human and cultural experience? Or are we overcome by the universality of insights we grew to know and love? President Bush certainly speaks language of this kind, defining an advance toward liberty as the purpose, pure and simple, of our foreign policy. It is awesome to remind ourselves that in a mere three weeks we are expected to know whether the Iraqi version of our Constitutional Convention is taking off.