War Stories

Philadelphia 1787 vs. Baghdad 2005

Bush’s lousy analogy.

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When things go particularly badly in Iraq—anarchy, insurgency, and now the delays in crafting a constitution—President George W. Bush and his top aides point reassuringly to the turbulence surrounding our own Founding Fathers’ exertions to forge a republic.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld first sought solace in history back in May 2003 *, only weeks after Saddam Hussein was toppled. America in the 1780s, he noted, was marked by “chaos and confusion … crime and looting … popular discontent.” “Our first effort at a governing charter—the Articles of Confederation—failed miserably,” he added, “and it took eight years of contentious debate before we finally adopted our constitution and inaugurated our first president.”

President Bush picked up on the theme, in nearly identical terms, in a speech just last May: “The American Revolution was followed by years of chaos. … Our first effort at a governing charter, the Articles of Confederation, failed miserably. It took several years before we finally adopted our Constitution and inaugurated our first President. … No nation in history has made the transition from tyranny to a free society without setbacks and false starts.”

In other words, so this argument goes, the United States of America took 11 years to go from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution; therefore, don’t be surprised that Iraq is still writhing a mere two years after the fall of Saddam—or that the delegates to its constitutional convention are experiencing difficulties.

There’s something to this, of course, but why does Bush keep bringing it up? Far from easing our concerns about Iraq (ah, well, this is just how things go in the transition to democracy), comparing its plight with that of late 18th-century America—and likening the roundtable in Baghdad’s Green Zone to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia—should only intensify the hackles and horrors.

The real inference to be drawn is that the American colonies were as well-fit for a democratic union as any society in human history—and they took more than a decade to get their act together. Today’s Iraq enjoys almost none of their advantages, so how long will it take to move down the same path—and how long will we have to stay there to help?

Let us count just a few of the obstacles.

  • A major dispute at both constitutional conventions was how to divide power between the central government and the regional provinces. But in the American case, the provinces—i.e., states—were well-established political units, with governors, statutes, and citizens who identified themselves as, say, New Yorkers or Virginians. There are no comparable authorities, structures, or—in any meaningful sense—constituents in Iraq’s regions (except, to some degree, in the Kurdish territories, and many people there want simply to secede).
  • America’s Founding Fathers shared the crucible of having fought in the Revolutionary War for the common cause of independence from England. This bond helped overcome their many differences. Iraq’s new leaders did not fight in their war of liberation from Saddam Hussein. It would be as if France had not merely assisted the American colonists but also fought all the battles on the ground, occupied our territory afterward, installed our first leaders, composed the Articles of Confederation, and organized the Constitutional Convention. The atmosphere in Philadelphia, as well as the resulting document and the resulting country, would have been very different.
  • America had a natural first president in George Washington, the commanding general and unblemished hero of the Revolutionary War. Amid the climate of political brawls and duels that make current tabloid fare seem tame, Washington was the one figure who could not be criticized, whose decisions were accepted by all. Had Washington rejected politics and retired to his estate, the union—and the Constitution that enshrined it—would have fallen apart. Perhaps if Ahmad Chalabi—the Pentagon’s handpicked Washington wannabe—had led a few brigades into Baghdad, his prospects would have brightened.
  • Among America’s Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton aligned the principles of the Constitution with the Enlightenment tenets of property, law, and individual rights. Islam may not be incompatible with democracy, but Locke and Montesquieu take you there more directly.
  • Sectarianism did not exist in early America. Yes, there were sharp regional differences between mercantile New England and the agrarian South, as well as moral splits over slavery. But no groups exacerbated these tensions by asserting an exclusive claim on God.
  • Early America saw armed revolts, notably Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion. But they were protests led by debt-ridden farmers against rising taxes—not pervasive or murderous insurgencies against the entire established order. They were also put down fairly promptly—Shays’ by a state militia, the Whiskey Rebellion by a mere show of government force.

There is one comparison between the two conventions that holds out some hope for Iraqi prospects—if they manage it shrewdly.

The Philadelphia convention nearly broke down over the issue of slavery—just as the Baghdad roundtable may do so over the question of Islamic law. The Southern American states were so dependent on slavery that their delegates (who were almost all slave-owners) refused even to negotiate over the practice’s survival.

In Iraq, many Shiites—who have finally acquired the power that goes with majority status—insist that Islam assume a central role in the new nation’s social and political life. This idea is bitterly opposed by Sunnis, who feel suddenly disempowered, and the northern Kurds, who tend to be more secular and who have grown accustomed to autonomy.

The American delegates punted their problem by agreeing that no amendment to ban slavery would be so much as considered until at least 1808. Some observers are now suggesting that the Iraqis do much the same with the question of Islamic law—defer the issue until later and, meanwhile, let each region or province find its own way.

There are those who oppose a deferral, noting that the Philadelphia evasion unraveled, triggering the Civil War of 1861-65. I would say this: If the Baghdad delegates hammer out a deal that might spark an Iraqi civil war 74 years from now, they should sign it at once. The bigger worry—which Bush’s analogies to the American Constitution do nothing to address—is how to avoid civil war in the coming months.

Correction, Aug. 23, 2005: This article originally and incorrectly said that Donald Rumsfeld originally took solace in history in March 2003. It was May 2003. Return to the corrected sentence.