For some, the drafting of the Iraqi constitution has called to mind America’s founding.   But whether any constitution will deliver liberty or democracy to Iraq’s people remains tragically uncertain.

The failure of Washington to find WMDs in Iraq or to link Baghdad to anti-U.S. terrorism forced the Bush administration to find an alternate justification for the war.  The President and many of his supporters settled on democracy promotion, effectively stealing Woodrow Wilson’s disastrous legacy from the Democratic Party.

Nowhere has the democratic process been watched more closely than in Iraq.  Lebanese elections have dampened Syrian influence, but at the cost of moving anti-American politicians center stage.

Small Saudi Arabian reform moves have aided fundamentalists more than liberals.  The leaders of Egypt and Pakistan do little more than mouth democratic platitudes, but real elections would likely aid anti-American jihadists.

Iraq, however, is Washington’s showcase—liberated, occupied, and recreated by U.S. troops.  If coercive nation building can succeed anywhere, it should be in Iraq.

Elections for a transitional government began the process.  Alas, Washington’s candidate, interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, developed no serious popular following.  Despite complaints in Washington about ungrateful clients, the Iraqis chose other leaders.

Still, the constitution remained to be written.  Would-be nation builders, from administration staffers to media heavyweights, were free with advice.  The constitution should enshrine women’s rights and protect religious liberties.  It should create a federal structure and separate law from Islam.

American activists protested, and Washington officials cajoled.  As the original August 15 deadline—desperately extended in the attempt to win Sunni agreement—for the constitution approached, Preeta D. Bansal and Nina Shea, members of the U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom, wrote that “Now is not the time for the international community to take a hands-off approach, which it may be tempted to do by a false sense of cultural relativism and a misguided ‘respect’ for a flawed ‘democratic’ process that could, ultimately, lead to undemocratic results.”

Some Iraqis also urged U.S. pressure.  Basma Fakri, president of the Women’s Alliance for a Democratic Iraq, said Washington should let the constitution writers know “that Iraq should be free.”

American Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad actively intervened in Baghdad, proclaiming Washington’s support for equal rights.  “There can be no compromise,” he declared.

U.S. pressure seems to have had some effect, though sections of the draft document still disappointed many.  Then Sunni leaders denounced the proposal, which went to the Iraqi voters.  Alas, the actual result probably never mattered much.

Obviously, constitutions are important—but only if they are enforced.  And that requires a particular civic culture, political discourse, and legal regime.  At the moment, Iraq appears to lack all of these.

The United States cannot provide the necessary means of enforcement.  Today, U.S. military occupation does not guarantee basic security.

A constitutional provision guaranteeing equal treatment will do Iraqi women no good if it is ignored by political authorities.  Promises of fair treatment for Christians and others matter little if the Iraqi government cannot or will not protect religious minorities from attacks by conservative Muslims.

Even formal democratic governance will mean little if authoritarian elements abuse their power.  After all, the Soviet Union was notable for the professed liberality of its constitution.  Dozens of smaller hellholes dotting the globe officially modeled their governments after the American or British system.

If the Iraqi constitution ends up as a liberal document in an illiberal society, it might not be completely valueless.  It could offer idealistic goals and provide a legal basis for real reform if the political culture changed.

However, the most pressing objective for those in the West who hope for a better future for Iraq is to promote within Iraqi society a greater appreciation of the importance of liberty.  Democracy is a worthy means, but it is only a means.  The objective is, or should be, a free society.

And this is what makes America’s present challenge in Iraq so great.  “The idea that 1,800 American troops died so Iraqi women can enjoy the full blessings of religious medievalism ought to disturb the Bush administration and the American public,” editorialized the New Republic.  Absolutely.  “No American blood should be spilt for the creation of a sharia rule state,” said Nina Shea.  Very true.

But it is far easier to teach the efficient forms of political democracy than the civil forms of political discourse.  Without a tolerant civic culture, real democracy is unlikely to flourish.  And given the violent resistance against U.S. occupation forces even two years after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, Washington has neither the time nor the ability to educate the Iraqi people.

In fact, the best policy would be to do less.  The U.S. government should begin withdrawing troops while emphasizing its intention to pull out all of its forces expeditiously.  Moreover, Washington should publicly disclaim any interest in acquiring permanent bases.  Iraq’s destiny will be in the hands of Iraqis.

More helpful may be the efforts of private groups that are not tainted by Washington’s obvious political agenda.  They can develop personal ties, model civil behavior, and teach Iraqi citizens the historic meaning of liberty.  But this is a long-term project.

Iraq’s constitutional negotiations should be seen as a start, not an end.  They have opened the first political discussions in decades.  They have highlighted the importance of a vibrant legal and political process.  But whether they will eventually lead to a peaceful, let alone free, society is unknowable.

Necessary, but yet to be built, is the foundation of a truly liberal order: a belief in freedom and a willingness to accept adverse political outcomes.  Unfortunately, creating such a democratic ethic almost certainly lies beyond Washington’s best efforts.