A way to understand war and its aftermath is through historical analogy. If the war party can cast itself as a good guy from some important historical epic, it stands a better chance of distracting from the ongoing horror of its military occupation. This time, the war party has chosen the most improbable analogy of all: the US founding.
Now, you might think: well, this makes sense! Iraq is a colony being subjected to far worse than the abuses and usurpations listed in the Declaration of Independence. King George, as bad as he was, did not arrest political dissidents by the thousands, manacle them and tie sand bags over their heads, and deny them a normal trial.
His soldiers didn’t typically shoot people on sight for having a copy of a pamphlet by Tom Paine. The King wasn’t attempting to establish a massive welfare-regulatory state in the colonies. He was merely exacting a small tribute and practicing mercantilism — a violation of liberty, to be sure — and for that he and all his loyalists were called tyrants and overthrown and driven out.
It turns out that this part of the founding story is not what the Bush administration wants us to focus on, and for good reason. Instead, Donald Rumsfeld suggests that the mess prevailing in Iraq right now is comparable to the situation between the end of the war and the ratification of the US Constitution, with attendant looting, crime, mobs storming buildings, breakdown of government structures, etc. That would make those resisting the US occupation like British loyalists, and the uniformed troops who shoot dissenters like Thomas Jefferson.
One is tempted to dismiss this as loony government propaganda, but it seems it is a necessary illusion for the people who have laid waste to Iraq and now administer a hated military dictatorship. They tell the Big Lie to themselves that it’s really all about freedom when, in fact, they are acting no differently from what you would expect of a military empire run by ideologues with too much money and too many bombs at their disposal.
But Mary Beth Norton of Cornell University decided to take Rumsfeld at his word. Writing in the New York Times, she shows that the comparison is absurd. The view that the period of the Articles of Confederation was a time of unrelenting chaos was promoted by the Federalists who were pushing the Constitution, but it has no basis in fact. As Murray Rothbard shows in his Conceived in Liberty, it was a time of peace and plenty and freedom — a model of how society needs no central authority to manage itself brilliantly. The only violence on record was Shays’ Rebellion, a political protest against harsh taxation.
Norton goes further to note that the US won its war against Britain and the loyalists fled, while Iraq lost its war and is suffering under the yoke of foreign military domination. “There was no British Paul Bremer sitting in Philadelphia and telling us what to do in the 1780s.”
If there were, is there any doubt what Americans would have done?
Norton is a left-liberal, of course, and regrets that the Articles of Confederation imposed no “national authority over commerce and taxation” — which was precisely the merit of the Articles and the great error of the Constitution. How much mischief has the “commerce clause” created over the years!
In fact, the trouble with the Constitution came early. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were incredibly despotic, even by standards of our own times, having declared as a criminal anyone who writes with an “intent to defame” the government.
The stated rationale was to protect the US against French Jacobinism, but Jefferson knew that the real purpose was to suppress anti-Hamiltonianism in all its forms. Virginia and Kentucky threatened de facto secession. Virginia in particular accused the federal government of “criminal degeneracy” and vowed to disregard all tyrannical laws. Two years later, the Hamiltonians were tossed out of power. (You can read the whole story here.)
The lesson that this generation of Americans took from the incident was that the Constitution was not enough to protect the people’s liberties. The people have to do that themselves. The great error of all constitutions is that they attempt to restrain the very government that is charged with enforcing it. This is a bit like allowing the Mafia to write and rewrite the criminal code.
The event also underscored that in reality there is no magic document that will restrain the state. If bad people come to power, they will always and everywhere enact abuses. For this reason, liberty can never be taken for granted; it must be guarded and fought for by every generation. Ever since the Constitution passed, the US has seen more and more political conflict as one or another party gains hold of the levers of power to extract ever more wealth from the public in the service of its own selfish interests.
At some point after it has put down all opposition in Iraq, the US wants to impose a constitution of sorts on Iraq. You can bet it will not include an amendment on the right of the people to resist military domination by a foreign superpower. If the US were to spell out the current de facto law it is imposing there, it would read something like the Alien and Sedition Acts. Can anyone be surprised that the Iraqis are resisting?
The US began this operation with the ambition to “decapitate” Iraq. Having failed to do that — the head is still sending messages to the people of Iraq and is probably more popular in the Muslim world than Osama, which is saying something — the US is now going for the arms and legs and the rest of the body.
But the US can’t arrest everyone, any more than the Hamiltonians could. A people demanding freedom from an oppressive government cannot finally be restrained. As for the most suitable analogies to help us understand the Iraq mess, dystopian novels like 1984 and Brave New World are a good place to start.