Billmon Blog: Philadelphia on the Tigris





The Iraqi constitutional"process" (now careening towards a bitter and divisive referendum) has already inspired one of the silliest historical analogies I think I've ever heard, at least since Ronald Reagan shuffled off the stage. Hardcore supporters of the democratic transformation of Iraq -- i.e. the deadenders -- have taken to comparing the political camel market in Baghdad to the American constitutional convention of 1787.

I've seen the idea parroted on any number of conservative"news" sites and right-wing blogs over the past few weeks, and we got a strong dose of it yesterday from the Vacationer in Chief himself:

Like our own nation's founders over two centuries ago, the Iraqis are grappling with difficult issues, such as the role of the federal government. What is important is that Iraqis are now addressing these issues through debate and discussion -- not at the barrel of a gun.

Leaving aside the dubious accuracy of that last sentence (which I'm sure would come as a surprise to the Mahdi Army, the Badr Brigade, the Wolf Brigade, the peshmerga, Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Iraqi National Islamic Resistance Front, Al-Awdah, the Al-Haqq Army, and every other war band currently trying to address Iraq's issues with the barrel of a gun) the entire premise is absurd.

The men who met in Philadelpha in the summer of 1787 were the winners of a protracted revolutionary struggle for national independence -- not the leaders of a collection of squabbling ethnic and religious factions, many of whom spent years in exile and then rode back into their native land on the backs of foreign tanks. The framers of the U.S. constitution expelled an occupying army. The founders of the New Iraq are guarded by one.

I've already noted the questionable legitimacy of a constitutional settlement essentially brokered -- if not flat out dictated -- by a U.S. proconsul in a series of backroom meetings with the likes of Ahmed Chalabi and his newfound friends in the Islamist camp. Many of the participants in those meetings weren't even official members of Iraq's constitutional drafting committee -- the body supposedly emulating the spirit of 1787.

I don't doubt there were many smoke-filled back rooms in the taverns of Philadelphia that fateful summer, but in Baghdad this summer there was hardly anything else. And if anyone had tried imitating James Madison's copious notetaking at those sessions -- so that at least history would know how Iraq was dismembered -- he probably would have wound up at the bottom of the Tigris.

And what would America's founders have made of political negotiations so rigidly divided along sectarian lines? Would there have been a Great Compromise in Philadelphia if every question had split the Episcopalians from the Methodists, or the Anglo-Saxons from the Celts? Their ancestors had already been through that kind of constitutional process -- the English Civil War.

It's also hard to picture the delegates in Philadelphia waiting around while the more devout among them ran proposed deals by their church elders to see if they passed religious muster, or fighting a knock-down, drag-out battle over whether the Bible should be cited as"a" primary legal source or"the" primary legal source -- not unless a time machine carried the leaders of the last Justice Sunday rally back 218 years and dropped them off at the corner of Third and Chesnut.

Obviously, I could go on and on about the absurdity of Shrub's claim -- even more absurd, in its own way, than when Ronald Reagan called the Nicaraguan contras the"moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers." The contras, at least, weren't fighting to establish an Islamic theocracy.

But even taking the analogy at face value, the objectives sought by the dominant parties in Iraq are the opposite -- in almost every way -- of those pursued by the majority of the delegates in Philadelphia.

Our framers sought a solution to the seemingly intractable problems of a weak, decentralized confederacy of semi-independent states: precisely the kind of government the ruling coalition of Kurds and Shi'a Islamists now want to create in Iraq, with the apparent blessing of the Cheney administration. What the American founders feared most -- the decomposition of the union into three or four mutually hostile regional confederacies -- is now the official goal of U.S. policy.

This is being obscured by the usual Orwellian abuse of the English language. In Iraq, we're told, the draft constitution stands for"federalism" -- the devolution of certain sovereign powers to local jurisdictions. But the essence of American federalism was the creation of a central government with both the legal rights and the revenues to enforce its will in matters deemed of vital national interest: war and peace, commerce and trade, and, most relevant in the present context, the disposition of western lands -- the 18th century American equivalent of Iraq's oil resources. (Even the original Articles of Confederation gave the national government exclusive control over those lands.)...



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