For all who wish the Iraqis well in their struggle to create a constitutional democracy, these are discouraging days.
The constitution-drafting leaders who labored bravely through the 120-degree days of a Baghdad summer have failed to resolve the basic disagreements that divide the regions and religions of Iraq.
It's been apparent for some time that key issues — such as power sharing between Baghdad and regional governments — have been too thorny for the 275-member National Assembly. But this fact will be noticed much more widely this week with the passing of the Aug. 15 deadline for a draft of a permanent national constitution.
American advisers made great efforts over the final weekend to force a deal by Aug. 15, a date set by the interim constitution and regarded as sacrosanct by the Bush administration. But the deadline passed without agreement, and Iraq's parliament extended it by seven days.
Americans should have some sympathy. The issues keeping the Iraqi factions apart have historical analogs in the U.S. constitutional convention of 1787. The claimed right of states to defy the federal government — or even to leave the Union — caused bitter division among the American founding fathers, roiled the young nation's politics for generations and led to our Civil War in 1861.
Given the knotty problems at hand, an agreement in principle (with the big disputes postponed) would at least pay respects to the deadline and show a commitment to going forward. This might dull the disappointment at the American embassy and in Washington, where the administration could do its best to put a good face on it for domestic consumption.
But settling for anything less than a true agreement on the major issues will probably do little to reassure Iraqis, who from the start have regarded the deadline as an American obsession that matters far less to them than their own interests.
The Bush administration pressed for the Aug. 15 date in part to put a limit on what could have been endless debate. But they have also urged a date certain for the drafting so that the new constitution could be sold to the citizenry. This is crucial to holding a ratification vote on schedule this fall and new elections in the winter.
All these have become checklist items for the Bush administration, which cites them regularly. They are the breadcrumbs on the trail by which the U.S. hopes to find its way out of Iraq.
With a new constitution ratified and a new government elected — and assuming Sunni involvement in both — the U.S. will have met most of its own preconditions for a phased withdrawal.
The last hurdle will be the readiness of the new Iraqi army and police to defend the new government and keep the peace. This last precondition is, of course, ultimately the most important.
But if Sunnis have a role inside the power structure come 2006, the Sunni-based insurgency should weaken (at least according to current military analysis). That would allow the United States to begin pulling its own troops out, which may be the one thing all involved now want most.
Republicans in Congress would be especially appreciative if this could happen well before the midterm elections of November 2006.
It is worth reflecting how this differs from three years ago, when Bush administration thinking was dominated by notions of a new Iraq leading to a transformed Arab world. Many of those responsible for this vision, including Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith at the Department of Defense, are now gone.
We should note that President Bush continues to espouse a policy of total commitment in Iraq, most recently in his Saturday radio address of Aug. 13. Meanwhile, however, Pentagon generals let it be known they are planning for reduced troop levels, and unnamed administration officials tell newspaper reporters on background that the U.S. has come to a new, more realistic agenda for its mission in Iraq.
The president is right to say that setting a timetable for a U.S. departure would be an encouragement to the insurgency. But the difference between a timetable and the kind of withdrawal the U.S. now seems to be pursuing may get harder and harder to discern.
So whatever pressure Americans bring to bear on negotiating factions in Baghdad right now, Iraqis will know it's pressure from a foreign power that will depart as soon as possible.
That could be one more reason why their own separate and divisive interests remain more important to them than our deadline.