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Jul 30, 2005 11:23 am

Iraq and American History

It is tempting to look back on American political development as a virtual certainty, that once the war was won, the rest as they say, is history (which is to say, developed exactly the way one would think). The reality however, is far different. Even after the Constitution was ratified, the 1790’s was perhaps one of the most passionate and most dangerous for the union than any other decade in American history, save perhaps the decade of the Civil War. During that time, political discourse was intensely personal and heated, and the future of the nation was far from certain.

Debate that threatened to tear America apart was everywhere.
Should the federal government assume the debts of the states, as Hamilton wanted?
Where would the capital of the nation be located?
What were the exact borders of each state, a topic never really of concern during the colonial period?

Although the Constitution protected slavery and the slave trade (at least until 1808) a petition to abolish the practice was presented by a group of Pennsylvania Quakers in 1790 which almost led to succession of several states. During those early years, some Northern state too, threatened to walk out of the new union. Perhaps most famous of these was Timothy Pickering’s attempt to form a secession movement among the New England states and New York at the start of the 19th century (this failed to materialize when Aaron Burr lost his bid to be Governor of New York). And this was all AFTER the ratification of the Constitution.

I bring this turmoil in our own history up to indicate my pessimism about Iraq’s political future. Like ourselves, Iraq’s transformation is revolutionary (in speed, that is to say), forcing them to build a democracy essentially from scratch among factions with very different interests. Today, issues in dispute include the role of Islam, the official language(s), and even the official name of the country (somewhat reminiscent of the Congressional debate over what to call the president, a debate that led to John Adam’s memorable blunder of suggesting that “your majesty” be the appropriate address).

Unlike our own Constitutional Convention, which was done behind closed doors, allowing for genuine compromise and frank debate about the nature of the new government, the Iraqi debate is in full view, and under the tight constraints of an August 15 timeline, when the Iraqi Parliament must approve the document.

I am, of course, hopeful that this whole experiment will all work out, even while remaining pessimistic about the actual possibility. After all, unlike our forefathers, we have the knowledge of hindsight and of history, of what tends to work and what tends to fail. We also have the intense international pressure bearing down upon Iraq to get its affairs in order. Nevertheless, there is every reason to fear that even without this devastating insurgency, the various ethnic groups in Iraq will simply not be able to function as a unit and, like India and Pakistan, perhaps chose to part ways, and perhaps violently.

Of course, the situation over there changes almost daily, it seems, and perhaps one day my actual expectations will conform to my hope for the country. We shall see.

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Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 8/1/2005

Well said.

Jefferson and Madison often spoke of Virginia as their "country," and like Washington, their loyalties were called into question by those Virginians who believed that they were selling out their freedoms to some distant and alien government not dissimilar to the tyranny they thought they just broke free from.

The situation in Iraq is difficult, though not at all hopeless. With the Kurds facing conflict with Turkey if they ever become independent, the Shi'ites' temptation to fall under he domination of Iran, and the Sunni's inability to survive without the oil-rich provinces of the rest of Iraq, they would be wise to recall the words of another great American patriot, who insisted that if the peoples of America would not hang together, than they would surely all hang apart.

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/1/2005

I hope the iraqis pull it off. Once advantage that they have over our founders is that other countries have done it before them with various degrees of success and failure. Our founders were to a remarkable extent making it up as they went along.

Still the religious divisions are daunting, far worse than anything faced in the US. Perhaps even more difficult are the tribal loyalties. These loyalties have been one of the major obstacles to developing reasonably honest (by western standards) bureaucracies and militaries in many new nations. It is so very hard for individuals to put loyalty to the nation over the tribal mixture of family, religion, and tradition. But I do wish them well.