THE TRUE TEST of a constitution is whether it can resolve the inevitable turmoil that will rattle any political system. Iraq is already in crisis, and its new constitution will help determine if the nation will embrace a common future or descend into civil war.
In late 2003, the Afghan people grappled with many of the same issues that Iraqis face today: power-sharing among ethnic groups, the role of Islam in the legal system, women's equality and the presence of foreign troops. Three crises have tested the new constitution since it was ratified in January 2004. Afghanistan's first crisis arose 10 days after the new document became law. The chief justice of the supreme court, a conservative Islamic cleric, declared it was un-Islamic, and therefore illegal, to broadcast videos of a singing woman on national TV.
At issue was the role of Islam in the legal system, and the chief justice claimed the power to decide what "Islamic" means. But his actions were unconstitutional. The legal question of women appearing on television was not before the court. The chief justice had disregarded all legal procedure and announced his decision as if a monarch.
The minister of information and culture, who is responsible for the TV station, refused to obey the court's order. It may have been the right decision in the short term, but it established a dangerous precedent: The executive branch had ignored the judiciary. A system of checks and balances only works if all parties play by the rules. In this case, neither side did. Iraq also faces the challenge of defining Islam's role in its constitution. Conservative Shiite politicians want this power. But many Iraqis don't want to live under clerical rule. To avoid the rupture that occurred in the Afghan system, the Iraqis must be careful to define -- and limit -- the power to use religion as a political weapon.
A warlord sparked the second Afghan constitutional crisis. Under the constitution, the central government in Kabul appoints provincial governors and other officials. It also collects customs revenues. The warlord, Ismail Khan, and his private militia controlled several provinces in western Afghanistan. He collected and kept the revenues from cross-border trade. Government officials were ignored or chased out of town. Khan's audacity daily cost the new government credibility.
One day, Khan and his government-appointed rivals got into a firefight. With help from the U.S. military, President Hamid Karzai dispatched a unit of the new national army to stop the fighting and remove Khan from power. Khan's soldiers burned down government and international offices in Herat. Calm returned after a few days, but tensions remain. The issue of how to share power between the central government and the regions was left unresolved.
The third constitutional crisis occurred just after Karzai was elected president in October 2004. The constitution states that Afghan citizens who hold a foreign passport cannot be appointed to the Cabinet unless they surrender their passport or a special vote of parliament approves their appointment. Karzai's top picks had been out of Afghanistan for many years and were reluctant to give up their foreign citizenship. But there was no elected parliament to approve the exceptions.
Some of Karzai's advisors said he had the power to make the appointments because there was no parliament. Opposition politicians argued that without a parliament, he couldn't appoint anybody with a foreign passport.
The crisis dragged on for weeks, and the capital ground to a halt. Karzai eventually decided to interpret his constitutional obligations strictly: He would not appoint anybody who refused to renounce their foreign citizenship. He lost some of his first choices but made it clear he was constrained by the law -- a message more powerful than any minister.
The most difficult decision facing leaders in Iraq, Afghanistan -- or in any democracy -- is whether to play by the rules. A constitution is just words on paper. If leaders are willing to follow the law no matter how disadvantageous in the short term, there is hope. When politicians trample the law for their own gain, however, not even the eloquence of Thomas Jefferson can save the day.