WASHINGTON—No one has more at stake than President Bush as Iraq tries to draft a constitution.
He has called the writing of the document a milestone in Iraq's drive toward self-reliance, a steppingstone for establishing an Arab democracy in the Middle East and the legal keystone to the stable government that's necessary before U.S. troops can come home.
"As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," Bush said last week after meeting with his defense and foreign policy teams at his Texas ranch.
The Iraqi government's failure to meet the Aug. 15 deadline for a draft constitution underscores Bush's political risk. If Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds can overcome their most important differences and hammer out a meaningful constitution by Monday—the latest deadline they set—that could help stem the steady decline in U.S. public support for Bush's Iraq policy and buy the administration more time to train Iraqi forces and help ensure the nation's future stability.
But if the Iraqis can't agree on the fundamental questions of how they'll govern themselves, Bush's historic gamble in Iraq could be lost, and with it his popularity today and his standing in history tomorrow, according to Middle East and domestic political analysts.
"A week's delay is no problem, but if this falls apart, it's a problem," said Lee Feinstein, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former official in the Defense and State departments. "This is the essence of the exit strategy. Without this, it will be hard for the U.S. to point to Iraq as a success."
Since the war began two and a half years ago, the administration has highlighted symbolic events—from the April 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein's giant statue in Baghdad to last January's elections—to claim progress and help maintain U.S. public support for the war.
But as U.S. casualties continue to climb (1,854 dead as of Wednesday), Americans' support for the war and Bush's handling of it has plunged.
A Newsweek poll this month found that only 34 percent of U.S. adults approve of Bush's policy on Iraq, while 61 percent disapproved. A survey last month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that only 27 percent of respondents believed Bush has a clear plan for success in Iraq.
If Iraqis need only one extra week to draft their constitution, that shouldn't hurt Bush politically, analysts say. But if it takes longer, it could.
"If this is seen as a blip, it's no big deal," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. "But if it's seen as a setback, it will add to public discontentment on Iraq. If people begin to read that the Iraqis cannot put together a government, it will be a problem."
Larry Diamond, a Stanford University political scientist who worked in the U.S. occupation government in Iraq, said the problem was partly of the White House's making when it insisted on the Aug. 15 deadline for the draft constitution.
"To presume that any deal is better than a delayed deal, that's based on a political strategy that we have to get out as ugly as we can, as quickly as we can," said Diamond, author of "Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq."
"Yes, speed is a concern for domestic public opinion polls and Iraqi public opinion," Diamond said. "But they are taking a risk here. They may get a bad product in the end and run the risk of civil war."
David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan research center in Washington, said the seven-day delay might have saved Bush by putting the brakes on an over-accelerated process and giving Iraqis the time needed to iron out their differences.
"There's an old saying, `You want something bad enough, you'll get something bad,'" said Mack, who served as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates under President Ronald Reagan. "Someone should look farther down the road than the latest polls."
The Iraqis' struggle to craft a new constitution continued Wednesday with Iraqi and American political leaders expressing optimism. However, they acknowledged that difficult issues remain unresolved—including how to share the nation's oil resources, the role of Islam in government and terms being sought by Kurds that would give them the option to secede.
Jonathan Morrow, an adviser to the drafting committee from the United States Institute of Peace, said it's far from certain that the negotiators will be able to reach agreement by the Monday deadline. He said the negotiating positions among the three main factions—Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and the Kurds—seem to have widened in the past two days.
If negotiators fail to meet the Monday deadline and the national assembly doesn't authorize another extension, the current government will be dissolved and new elections held by the end of the year to choose another temporary government. And Bush would be hard-pressed to point to that as progress.
(Douglas reported from Washington, Chin from Baghdad.)
Methodologies for polls cited:
The Newsweek poll was conducted August 2-4 with 1,004 adults aged 18 and older. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press poll was conducted from July 13-17 with a nationwide sample of 1,052 adults 18 years old and older. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.