Historically, July has been known as a month of revolutions in many places around the world; the Americans declared independence, the French stormed the Bastille, and the Iraqis overthrew the monarchy. Recently there has been more comment on the idea of revolution in Iraq as the country suffers another torturous summer and the agonies of 15 years of instability and failure of service provision, on top of decades of authoritarianism and war. Iraq’s post-1958 history suggests this could result in another highly dangerous moment in the absence of a movement based on a national dialogue to revive a neglected process of federalism.
Here I shall argue that America’s Founding Fathers who created the blueprint for America’s functioning federal system and whose ideas were built upon a new wave of ideological exploration of freedom across Europe, can provide a good illustration of what exactly a movement to build a national vision resembles. I will argue that this national foundational history could be reflected in a new national dialogue for Iraq.
Nobody should win any prizes for calling out the shortcomings of Iraq’s political system as I myself have pointed out many times over the years. Numerous governments have placed party political ambitions and private financial interests ahead of the development of the state while allowing corruption to spiral out of control, ignoring the mounting danger of our fast-growing population and their legitimate demands which grow louder every year.
Iraq also faces corruption’s evil twin, mismanagement. Over the years dozens of critical strategic projects have stumbled or been lost in recurring power struggles over the spoils of oil wealth and contracts which has led to pointless, wasteful projects.
The result of this bickering and graft has been the devastation of services in Basra and the loss of the most fundamental human right, access to water. In such an emotionally charged time Iraqis or any citizens suffering such a crisis will naturally take to the streets calling for drastic change. This is where Iraq must press the pause button.
Change of any kind requires strong intellectual foundations, historic movements that give rise to new national visions and self-sustaining, productive eras where small gains build upon small gains over a period of decades.
Iraq has attempted such a process but once in its modern history, in the years before 2003 when the opposition conferences were held and later after the invasion where the process of drafting the constitution began.
Those who championed the end of the terrible dictatorship, which gassed Iraqi citizens by the thousand and buried communities in hundreds of mass graves soon found greater challenges, chiefly the abrogation of responsibility of much of the political class.
Contrast this with the foundational building blocks of the United States of America, a constantly evolving federal political structure rich in resources and a nation that experienced a bloody revolution and even more disruptive civil war.
America was not founded upon backroom deals or a “moment” such as the surrender of the British at Yorktown. The United States was built on a highly fluid process of debate that brought states together around documents influenced by some of the most radical thinkers of the time.
This may seem like a ridiculous comparison to some, but America did not become a superpower by chance or by virtue of resources, which could easily have been fought over as in so many other countries, leading to endless chaos. The United States in the 18th century, like France and the UK, was experiencing a cultural moment that would eventually lay the foundations of lasting prosperity in Europe and North America. Nobody is naive enough to suggest these foundational moments were not without oppression or controversy, in that sense no different from many historical narratives which relish mythology.
America’s intellectual forefathers can claim genuine ideological commonality. The birth of America was shaped by lively debate and often firm disagreement but ultimately it was a difficult period of compromise that shaped the social landscape for generations.
For Iraqis, this must be a critical era to consider in the evolution of federal democracy with each arrangement being tailored to the national situation but most importantly, designed in such a way that political processes can be in perpetual motion.
This history is vital to consider in that federal democracies are not necessarily the final state of government but instead are undergoing a process of change. It is clear that we need a new national dialogue in Iraq similar to what was seen in the years after America defeated the British imperialists. Not simply to combat sectarianism but to rebuild a system of government that includes all communities, from the Gulf of Basra to the mountains of Kurdistan.
Because at the moment we don’t have the instrument for a revolution, which includes thinkers, Founding Fathers to build a movement, and a movement to become a state. Iraqis will find it is far better to carve the path through evolution, not revolution, as much as this seems painfully frustrating now.
The role of the global community in this journey is to support us through an Iraqi-led process. The alternative would be a series of power transfers based on fake populism, the same depressing story Iraq has seen far too often, in 1958, 1963 and 1968. In each of those times, Iraqis were told that a new national moment had been created that would lead to equitable growth and national liberation, a re-birth or resurrection just as the Baath movement proclaimed in its very name.
The danger today is that those hungering for change will see another new “national moment” but without strong ideological foundations and a process for national dialogue, there will simply be nothing but a “moment” rather than a movement. The likelihood is that another strongman will emerge with no unifying vision.
America’s Founding Fathers built such a vision, a bedrock of self-reinforcing political structures through bloody revolution and fierce debate but in the end, lasting compromise, peace and prosperity. A starting point was an educated class of radical thinkers which gives us the first critical takeaway, in that Iraq has missed opportunities to heavily invest in rebuilding the education system.
Many of the Founding Fathers of the United States attended the Colonial Colleges, most of which went on to form what is now called the Ivy League. John Adams drafted the constitution of his home state of Massachusetts, before using some of that document’s key ideas in the drafting of the United States Constitution.
Thomas Paine’s Common-Sense pamphlet described a future of freedom from British oppression, free elections and a great number of individual liberties and rights, which inspired America’s first national movement of unity. This document would go on to be so widely read in the colonies that it is thought almost every man and woman who could read possessed a copy.
What is vital to remember is that America’s Founding Fathers were not just the household names we now associate with the birth of a nation but instead, behind the declaration of independence’s chief drafter Thomas Jefferson and those who took part in the Grand Convention at Philadelphia were thousands of supportive citizens, many of whom gave their lives for these ideals.
There were many months of debate and committee formation and many drafts were thoroughly contested. Issues such as taxation, the electoral college system and the checks and balances of a federal, bicameral nation were sweated over, the building blocks that gave the United States flexibility and strength as a political entity. Almost every one of these critical issues has been neglected in Iraq.
This was not an arrangement that would bless the American people with assured stability since the United States would later experience a bloody struggle to uphold everything that had been gained from the British, as the Southern States challenged the North in the American Civil War. The ideals of the United States had to be perpetually defended by upholding the moral resolve of the Founding Fathers, as Abraham Lincoln famously said: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”
Throughout the 19th century, France also suffered tumultuous periods where the founding intellectual foundations of the Republic would be challenged repeatedly through a return to tyranny, renewed revolution, imperialism and coup d’état. During that time French intellectuals continued to build on the ideological foundations of the Republic, especially Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s masterpiece “The Social Contract”, and Alexis de Tocqueville whose last great work, “The Old Regime and The Revolution” was one of the first works of history on the revolution, continuing a tradition of radical literature where intellectuals turned their attention to critical national debates.
Iraq’s problem is that many Iraqis believe radical change can happen with the removal of a particular government or figure and this has often been at the hands of extremely dangerous personalities. Iraq cannot achieve this process on its own since our society has struggled time and time again with negative foreign meddling which has trampled on our sovereignty.
What Iraq can do is continue to invite foreign assistance to build an Iraqi-led civil society process with an eye on a national vision that stretches decades into the future. How we can achieve this is the vital next step in our national journey, but it cannot be achieved through another dangerous revolutionary moment where patience is thrown out the window and chance becomes the new architect of our collective future.
Time matters, Iraq must instead work on the building blocks of an evolutionary journey. That has to begin immediately because history tells us it will be many years in the making.