I AM ONE WHO BELIEVES THAT THINGS HAVE GONE SO WRONG IN IRAQ that the American “brand” is no longer seen as a legitimate deliverer of stability and democracy there.
My colleague and friend, Noah Feldman, a professor at New York University’s School of Law, disagrees with me and has put his formidable intelligence and expertise on Islam to the test both in a new book and when he served as an advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority on how to meld Islam into a constitutional democracy.
On Feldman and his new book What We Owe Iraq, Robert Kagan writes:
In the spring of 2003, the Bush administration sent Noah Feldman to Iraq to advise American occupation authorities and the Iraqis on constitution making. The choice was remarkably apt, for Feldman possessed a rare blend of talents. A young and respected professor of constitutional law at New York University, he spoke and read Arabic fluently and held a doctorate in Islamic studies. Nor was his the normal Bush appointee’s resume. A self-described liberal Democrat, Feldman had clerked for Associate Justice David Souter and litigated for Al Gore in the Florida ballot melee in 2000.
Feldman’s most important quality, however, may have been his deep belief in the compatibility of Islam and democracy. He belongs to a small but growing movement among scholars of Islam, a group diverse enough to include Gilles Kepel of France and Reuel Marc Gerecht of the United States, that believes the real promise of democracy lies with devout Muslims. In Feldman’s first book, ”After Jihad,” published just before he left for Iraq, he argued that the desire for democracy is widespread among Muslim believers, much more than the desire for violent jihad, and that Islamists should therefore be given a chance to rule.
Scholars don’t often get to test their theories in the field. Feldman did in Iraq. As a constitutional adviser, Feldman helped shape Iraq’s Transitional Administrative Law, the interim constitution and political road map for the country’s transition from occupied territory to sovereign, democratic nation. What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building is a product of that experience. The book, like its author, is an unusual blend: part theoretical treatise, part political analysis, part memoir. Above all, it is a plea to the American conscience to take seriously the responsibility the United States has assumed to help the Iraqi people build the democracy Feldman believes they need and deserve.
When the United States invaded Iraq, Feldman argues, it did more than topple a tyrant. It undertook a ‘trusteeship’ on behalf of the Iraqi people. Aware of “the legacy of paternalism . . . inherited from the ideology of empire,” Feldman argues that the nation-building task can be “salvaged ethically only if it is stripped down to the modest proposition that the nation builder exercises temporary political authority as trustee on behalf of the people being governed.”
Readers unfamiliar with the style of academic discourse Feldman often employs in this book may wish to remain so. But the core of his thesis is powerful and important.
I think that an exchange between realist Robert Kaplan and the architect of a democratic Islam Noah Feldman would be the right ticket. Perhaps some day.
But in the mean time, I am moderating a meeting with Noah Feldman tomorrow, Tuesday, at the New America Foundation at 12:15 p.m. (his books will also be available)
The public is welcome, but you get to bring your own lunch. The address is 1630 Connecticut Ave, NW, 7th Floor.
RSVPS must go to Jennifer Buntman at email@example.com.
— Steve Clemons