Saturday, February 25, 2006

If Iraq is the New America, Both Countries Are in Big Trouble

Yesterday, as Iraq tried desperately to avoid spinning entirely out of control, President Bush tried to assure us that the hundreds of sectarian attacks throughout Iraq are just part of that nation's growing pains as it becomes a free, democratic society. Here's the analogy he drew, addressing the American Legion yesterday, to assure us that everything would be all right:

Yet history teaches us that the path to a free society is long, and not always smooth. I've seen that in our own history. In the years following the American Revolution, there were riots and uprisings and even a planned coup. In 1783, Congress was chased from Philadelphia by angry veterans demanding back pay, and Congress stayed on the run for six months. It was then that Congress learned, don't mess with America's veterans.

It's important to remember that our first effort at a governing charter, the Articles of Confederation, failed, and it took over a decade after independence before we adopted our Constitution and inaugurated George Washington as our first President.
Riots? Uprisings? A planned coup? Let's consider exactly what the awful events Bush describes suggest about the future of Iraq.

There are three possibilities here: He's wrong and Iraq will take longer than America did to achieve peaceful, democratic stability; he's wrong and Iraq will take less time than America did, or he's right and Iraq will take exactly as long as America did to achieve peaceful, democratic stability. If he's wrong and was overly pessimistic about Iraq's current path, it would probably be the first time this administration has erred on the side of caution regarding Iraq. However, even if he's right, we should not be assured by his analogy, we should be horrified.

As Bush rightly points out, America in its earliest days was beset by violent strife. Was it comparable to what Iraq is experiencing? For one thing, all of it was localized. For another, consider the nature of the grievances:

There were the folks pissed off at doctors for graverobbing, dissecting, and playing mean pranks with the bodies. Really.

Then there were the Scottish distillers pissed off that the tax on their moonshine was higher than the tax on larger distilleries. That's why it wasn't called The Sectarian Rebellion, but The Whiskey Rebellion.

And if anyone can tell me exactly what the New York City Brothel Riot was about, I'd be obliged.

Then there were the organized movements actually aimed at overthrowing the fledgling government. There was the Newburgh Conspiracy, such a fiendish plot that it was stopped only by George Washington reading the conspirators a letter, and so heinous that one of its leaders went on to become the first secretary of the Treasury.

And, of course, there was the Shays Rebellion. What sinister ends did Shays and his zealots pursue? They stormed courthouses, lynching judges and killing bystanders. And by "lynching" I mean "prevented from holding court" and by "killing bystanders" I mean "sought to prevent the imprisonment of American citizens guilty of nothing more than being in debt."

The key difference between early America and early Iraq is that the early disturbances here were (sometimes) violent expressions of legitimate, or at least genuine, concerns about fairness and the appropriate nature of America's government. They weren't trying to prevent the establishment of government, in some cases, they supported a stronger central government. They were on the same team and their grievances were not of such nature that they had to be overcome and only then could the "real" Constitution take hold -- their grievances brought to light problems with the existing Articles of Confederation, making clear why changes were needed.

For Bush's analogy to hold, he should address whether he thinks the insurgents in Iraq have legitimate grievances and, better still, he should identify what constitutional changes he thinks are necessary to transform Iraq's current equivalent of the Articles of Confederation into a workable analogue to the Constitution. If he thinks the government and its charter are fine, then he can't argue that Iraq's violence is analagous to America's. If he thinks they're not fine, he ought to specify how and suggest ways to fix them.

Furthermore, even if his logic were somehow reconcilable, consider the timetable President Bush is implying we've got in store. Let's call 2005 Iraq's 1776. Here's how the future of Middle East plays out, if America follows America's path:

2005 - Iraq achieves true independence.
2018 - Iraq's Constitution goes into effect.
2094 - Iraq's civil war ends, with all its citizens equal
2196-2197 - A series of Civil Rights Acts ensure legal protections for all Iraq's citizens regarding everything from access to the courts, to voting, to jobs and housing.
???? - Iraq elects its first atheist-Jew lesbian president.

Iraq is not America. The fact that America -- which was an experiment to determine not how democracy should work in a specific country, but how it should work at all -- endured minor, localized strife over financial and judicial matters should not be a balm to those concerned about Iraq's religious, ethnic and tribal violence.

And, perhaps most damning against our president, if Iraq's status as a democracy strong enough to ensure it's free of terrorist havens is such a distant dream, then -- if America's safety really was the motive for invading -- our country would have been better off leaving Saddam in power (isolated and defanged) and focusing our military and policy energies on the immediate threat: Osama bin Laden.

We chose not to do that, and the further off a stable, free, democratic Iraq is, the less and less certain we can be -- because who knows what alternate events might have transpired? -- that invasion was the best course of action.

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