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Slate's War Stories: America, 1787 vs. Iraq, 2005


I'm Madeleine Brand, and this is DAY TO DAY.

As Iraqis struggle to agree on a new constitution before Thursday's deadline, some here in the US have compared the situation in Iraq with the early days of the American republic when we were working on our own Constitution. Here's President Bush making the comparison a few months ago.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Our first effort at a governing charter, the Articles of Confederation, failed miserably. It took several years before we finally adopted our Constitution and inaugurated our first president. It took a four-year civil war and a century of struggle after that before the promise of our declaration was extended to all Americans.

BRAND: Here to talk about the president's analogy is Fred Kaplan. He writes on military affairs for the online magazine slate.com.

Hi, Fred.

FRED KAPLAN (Slate.com): Hi.

BRAND: So it seems like the president is saying, `Be patient because it took us quite a while to get to where we are today.' Is that, indeed, an apt analogy?

KAPLAN: You know, I've often been puzzled why he uses this analogy. He's used it a few times because, you know, he's saying that, `Hey, we took 75 years to do this right, so be patient.' The problem with the analogy is that the conditions for democracy in early America were far more advantageous than the conditions in Iraq. So, you know, he might be thinking that he's saying, `Hey, these things take time,' but if you look at how much time it took us to get our act together, it looks quite grim for the Iraqis.

BRAND: And what are some of those major differences?

KAPLAN: Well, the situation that we have sort of in common is the conflict over federalism, how power should be divided between the central government and, in Iraq's case, the provinces; in America's case, the states. The big difference, though, is that in the United States, you had these states that already had democratic practices. They had governors. They had sort of a common basis of law. There's no such institutions or notions of a constituency in the provinces of Iraq right now.

Another thing is that everybody who was at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 in Philadelphia had this common crucible of having fought in the Revolutionary War against the British for the cause of independence. The Iraqis did not fight in their war for independence from Saddam Hussein. That's a big difference.

BRAND: Well, I suppose one thing they might have in common is that they all want the US out.

KAPLAN: Ha. Well, yeah, that's true, although not right now. I mean, they're split on whether they want us out now. And also, you know, who are `they'? I mean, another thing that we had going for us was George Washington, who was universally accepted as the obvious guy to become the first president. If he opposed something, it wouldn't happen. If he was in favor of something, it was guaranteed to happen. And even people at the time, people like Madison, Hamilton wrote at the time that if it hadn't been for George Washington, the union probably would have fallen apart at the beginning.

BRAND: Well, you know, we've had the argument on this show--put forth on this show that the Founding Fathers in this country, in the United States, put off some of the most contentious issues, including slavery...

KAPLAN: Oh, yeah. Mm-hmm.

BRAND: ...so that they could get a constitution under their belts and then move on. So should the Iraqis be doing that?

KAPLAN: There are people who think they might very well have to defer some issues. Now, you know, people say, `Well, we deferred the issue of slavery and look where that got us. Seventy-four years later, we had a Civil War.' I would say that if this constitution can prevent a civil war in Iraq for 74 years as opposed to, say, three months, it will have done a lot of good.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from Fred Kaplan. He writes on military affairs for the online magazine Slate.

Thanks, Fred.

KAPLAN: Thank you.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Madeleine Brand
Madeleine Brand is the host of NPR’s newest and fastest-growing daily show, Day to Day. She conducts interviews with newsmakers (Iraqi politicians, US senators), entertainment figures (Bernardo Bertolluci, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Gervais), and the everyday people affected by the news (an autoworker laid off at GM, a mother whose son was killed in Iraq).