Much of official Washington remains focused on the issues — legal and political — that have arisen from the indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney who was a principal architect of the administration’s approach to Iraq before and after the invasion and occupation of that distant land. This is as it should be: Libby and his former boss need to be held accountable for leading this country’s military forces into a quagmire that has cost more than 2,000 American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives.

The only problem with this otherwise healthy obsession with the investigation is that it draws attention away from the disaster that Cheney, Libby and their crew of neoconservative nutcases have created.

In addition to the rapidly mounting death toll — 93 U.S. troops were killed in October, the highest casualty rate since January — the insurgency’s Tet offensive-level attacks within the capital city of Baghdad, and the degeneration of the trial of Saddam Hussein into a legal farce, there is the tragedy of the country’s bumbled attempt to craft and implement a constitution.

Were any U.S. officials paying serious attention to the process — as opposed to trying to spin it into something it is not — they would acknowledge that Iraq is in a state of constitutional crisis. Even if the October 15 vote on the new Iraqi constitution were technically legitimate — under the undemocratic rules adopted by its framers in order to guarantee a particular result — it would have been hard to spin as a meaningful signal of progress toward democracy.

The details of the document were literally up for grabs until just days before the voting began, and not even the most over-the-top apologists for the process would dare suggest that the people of Iraq knew what they were voting on. More significantly, the vote took place while the country was occupied by a foreign force that deposed the previous government, that faces an open insurrection and that, by all accounts, shaped the character of the constitution more than did the Iraqis themselves.

But, of course, all this is beside the point, since the vote does not appear to have met the base standards of legitimacy.

Iraq’s election commission was for the better part of a week forced to delay the release of the results as it investigated serious irregularities in the voting. The commission had to examine evidence of vote totals that did not appear to be credible — including “unusually high” numbers of yes votes in provinces where there was widespread opposition to the constitution. Also of concern to the commission were reports that Iraqi police removed ballot boxes from districts where there was significant opposition to the constitution and that districts where there was more support for the document had recorded more votes than there were registered voters.

It is true that, after all the irregularities that were documented in the 2000 and 2004 U.S. presidential elections, the U.S. government lacks the authority that it once had in discussions of democracy. But the Bush administration and members of Congress should have been much more concerned about the evidence of fraud and corruption in what was supposed to be a definitional vote regarding Iraq’s future.

As of now, questions about the legitimacy of the Iraq vote remain, especially after the release of “results” suggesting that the constitution was rejected by a majority of voters in three Iraqi provinces. That was the standard that was set for rejection of the plan, but because the constitution was not rejected by a supermajority in one of the provinces, it was determined to have been “approved.”

The state of affairs is so troubling that claims by American supporters of the war that Iraq has passed another “milestone” lack even the bare minimum of credibility. The only way the new constitution can ever be considered a viable document, by the Iraqis or by honest observers from the rest of the world, is if all questions about the legitimacy of the process in general and the October 15 vote in particular are removed.

That has not happened. Concerns about stolen and stuffed ballot boxes remain. So, too, do equally serious questions about whether Iraqis were fully aware of the contents of a document that was in flux up until the eve of the vote, and about whether a country can or should try to define its future while under occupation.

Before U.S. officials can make grand claims about “progress” in Iraq, these are the issues that must be addressed.

If Iraq is every to become the stable, functioning democracy that not only President Bush but the vast majority of his critics would like to see emerge, the process must begin with the absolute assurance that elections are conducted in a manner that is transparent, fair and fully legitimate. In light of the scandalous manner in which the vote on the new constitution was conducted — and the scandals that have arisen as a result — no such assurance can be found.

An expanded paperback edition of John Nichols’ biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press: 2005), is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at The book features an exclusive interview with Joe Wilson and a chapter on the vice president’s use and misuse of intelligence. Publisher’s Weekly describes the book as “a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney” and Esquire magazine says it “reveals the inner Cheney.”