While our all-seeing neoconservatives, liberal internationalists, and realists argue about democratizing the Muslim world — their argument is not if we should, only how — the real authors of our Muslim-world disaster remain hidden. These wretches are America’s history teachers. They have failed so utterly that no leader in either party appears to understand U.S. history or the basically nontransferable nature of America’s experience. So ineffective have the teachers been that Americans — leaders and led — expect to replicate abroad the republic under which they live but about which they know almost nothing.
Recently neoconservatives and the editorial pages of major dailies have brooded about the failure of Iraq’s constitutional convention to produce a document worthy of the Founders. While the neocons try to limit damage to the Bush Administration, other pundits on the right and the left draw on “history” to remind Americans the U.S. constitution was not made in a day, and that the 1776–1789 period passed before the Founders produced a constitution which still is the indispensable guide for those aspiring to self-government. Because it took America’s greatest men 13 years to create the constitution, the pundits say, we should not worry that the “Iraqi Founders” are having trouble.
This argument is glib and, as a friend says, sounds convincing if you say it fast. It is, however, an argument that can be grounded only in a malicious intent to mislead Americans or a fundamental ignorance of our history. It may be both, but certainly is the latter. For that reason, we should build gallows sturdy enough to accommodate our history teachers.
The road to the U.S. constitution began, to choose a plausible date, with Magna Charta in 1215. From then, Anglo-American political and constitutional thought meandered through five-plus centuries of evolution — guided by Christian scripture and punctuated by theoretical debate, civil and religious wars, regicide, electoral politics, and world wars — until 1789 and what Catherine Drinker Bowen aptly described as “Miracle in Philadelphia.” Questions: How many Americans know, let alone can discuss, that fact? How many Americans can identify a similar post-1215 process in the Islamic world from which the Iraqi Founders can seek guidance? Whose fault is it that such elemental realities elude America’s bipartisan governing elite?
Next, when the Founders signed Jefferson’s Declaration, beginning the journey to the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, they were not only informed by Christian scripture and instructed by centuries of evolving Anglo-American political theory and moral philosophy, but also drew on 150-years experience of self-government in North America, beginning in Jamestown and Plymouth. The Founders were not off-the-cuff, 90-day wonders when it came to self-government. They were steeped in centuries of republican theory and history, and many participated in the day-to-day politics of self-government. Questions: How many Americans know these clear, bare-bone facts? From what comparable body of self-governing theory and what record of practical electoral experience are the Iraqi Founders drawing? Are they informed and guided, as were our Founders, by Christian scripture? How can any rational American expect the Iraqis to produce a “Miracle in Baghdad”?
Finally, when the Founders signed and the states ratified the Constitution, how did they know power would be peacefully passed from one government to another? Well, they didn’t. But based on the post-Magna Charta development of Anglo-American self-government, the Constitutionu2018s provisions, and the unity-producing reverence Americans had for George Washington’s actions and guidance, the Founders hoped for an orderly transfer. The accession of John Adams to succeed Washington did not fully prove the Founder’s formula because the Federalists kept power. But their scheme was validated by the 1800 transfer from Adams to Jefferson, from one party to another after a vicious election campaign. Questions: Why do Americans believe elections in places lacking 800 years of Anglo-American political experience, like Iraq and Afghanistan, make any difference? Whose fault is it that U.S. leaders fail to see that elections are meaningless in societies where there is have no history of peacefully transferring power and men do not shelve their AK-47s and wait for the next election?
History teachers are the villains. They have left Americans without a sound understanding of their history. Crippling at home, their failure causes our humiliation and defeat abroad. America’s experience is long, arduous, bloody, Christianity-based, and largely unique. Others may aspire to replicate it, and to them we owe rhetorical support, prayers, and best wishes. Our experience, however, cannot be installed in alien cultures in a few years time; and certainly not at bayonet point. That our otherwise brilliant U.S. leaders do not know this deep in their bones speaks to the failure of America’s history teachers, a failure that should shame them more painfully than any pain derived from the noose they richly merit.