Monday, August 22, 2005

Constitutional Differences

As the Iraqi delegates struggle to write a constitution, members of the Bush administration have been quick to remind us that the strife in Iraq is a natural byproduct of the transition to democracy. Rumsfeld and Bush have both compared the current situation in Iraq to the period between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the United States Constitution. Fred Kaplan has six reasons why this is a bad analogy.

•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.
If these comparisons prove anything, it’s that the difficulties the United States experienced in forming a national government will most likely be experienced tenfold in Iraq. It’s an unpleasant fact, but it’s one the administration needs to confront. Analogies between present day Iraq and the first days of American independence may be comforting, but they’re not justified.

--Matthew McCoy