Joseph Ellis: Baghdad's Foundering Fathers





[JOSEPH J. ELLIS is author of "His Excellency: George Washington" (Knopf, 2004) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation" (Knopf, 2001).]

THE GREAT British philosopher and essayist Alfred North Whitehead once observed that there were only two instances in history when the political leadership of an emerging nation behaved as well as anyone could reasonably expect. The first was Rome under Caesar Augustus. The second was the United States under the collection of statesmen known as the founding fathers.

Expecting Iraq and its leaders to meet that high standard of performance is, to put it mildly, asking a lot. To be sure, it would be marvelous to witness an Iraqi version of James Madison — who is generally regarded as the father of the U.S. Constitution — emerge to orchestrate the current cacophony in Baghdad, where delegates struggle against the odds to draft a constitution. But, truth be told, even Madison would be hard-pressed to work his magic in Iraq, which labors under historical burdens more intractable than anything America\'s founders ever faced.

First, there is no Iraqi George Washington to confer legitimacy to the deliberations in Baghdad. Washington\'s presence in the chair at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 gave instant credibility to the proceedings. He brought to the task his enormous prestige as the hero of the war for independence and his impeccable revolutionary credentials. No such figure exists in Iraq because Saddam Hussein was overthrown by the U.S. military and the coalition forces rather than by an indigenous uprising of the Iraqi people. As a result, there was no opportunity to produce a Washington, someone who could embody the nascent Iraqi nation on the basis of his wartime leadership. All of Iraq\'s political leaders suffer instead under the shadowy charge of being mere American puppets.

Second, the creation of a viable American nation did not occur until seven years after the winning of independence. The transitional government under the Articles of Confederation permitted the founders to defer the controversial question of national sovereignty to a later date. The Iraqis might decide to follow the American example in this regard, opting for a confederation of Shia, Kurd and Sunni states for the time being. But they are under enormous pressure to accelerate the political schedule from U.S. advisors who fear that a mere confederation will quickly degenerate into civil war. The American founders faced no equivalent pressure, and though British troops remained stationed as a hovering menace on the western frontier, there was nothing comparable to the American army of occupation in Iraq to complicate their calculations.

Third, the American founders were the beneficiaries of a broad popular consensus about the core values on which their newly independent republic should be based. Thomas Jefferson\'s lyrical words in the Declaration of Independence left plenty of room for political disagreement, most especially over slavery, but there was no question that the American republic would be a liberal state in which individual rights, religious freedom and equality under the law were self-evident truths. No such consensus exists in Iraq, where the collision between the medieval values of Islam and the modern values of a liberal state appears to be derailing compromise, making the central disagreement nonnegotiable....

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