The year the American war for independence ended, 1781, the United States adopted the Articles of Confederation as its preferred form of government. Even a cursory glance at the Articles reveals that the first clause in the most famous speech in American history is incorrect.
At Gettysburg in 1863 Lincoln began as follows: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation.” No, they did not. They established a confederation of sovereign states, loosely bound together in a diplomatic alliance that vested only limited power in the central government. No American nation was possible at the time because allegiances remained local and regional at best, so a confederation acknowledging that political reality offered the only kind of union acceptable to all its constituents.
We all know that the confederation model was short-lived, replaced by the nation-state in 1788 with the ratification of the Constitution. But the Articles of Confederation served the useful purpose of sustaining some semblance of political unity for seven years after the Revolutionary War. As transitory as the confederation became in America, it provides the proper model for Iraq and, in fact, for other currently combustible countries in the Middle East, including Syria.
Our fundamental mistake in Iraq also has its origins in America's founding era. Thomas Jefferson believed there was a natural law governing all societies that tyrannical rulers (read King George III) violated. Once you removed such rulers, for instance Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the natural order of peace and harmony would be restored.
If there is any place on Earth designed to expose Jefferson's utopian vision as an illusion, it is the Middle East today, where the removal of autocratic governments have produced sectarian chaos, civil wars and horrific bloodletting. All the national borders in the Middle East are arbitrary lines in the sand drawn by European powers after World War I, in effect an Eurocentric grid imposed on a Muslim mosaic of Sunni, Shiite and minority sects, along with Kurds, Turkmens and other ethnic minorities.
As a result, the very idea of such a thing as “the Iraqi people” is a Western delusion and a geographic fiction. Once the United Stated toppled Hussein, it lifted the lid on Pandora's box, and we are now witnessing the political chaos that has inevitably ensued. We have spent 4,500 American lives, with more than 30,000 wounded, more than 100,000 Iraqi lives and nearly $1 trillion on a cause that was always a fool's errand.
The only way to salvage any semblance of honor from our misguided policy is to recognize that primal allegiances in Iraq remain sectarian, tribal and ethnic rather than national, thereby making our goal of a democratic Iraqi nation inherently impossible. Recent statements by President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry claiming that an "inclusive government" is taking shape in Baghdad are almost certainly wishful thinking.
Which brings us back to the confederation model. In post-revolutionary America it performed the essential task of providing enough political coherence to bridge the gap between state sovereignty and a nation-sized republic. In Iraq, confederation would allow Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds to live apart in separate provinces, each with a measure of political and religious autonomy. Unlike what happened in the United States, an Iraqi Confederation would probably lead to partition rather than nationhood, but in the current context, it remains the best outcome we can hope for.
It is also the only way for the president's strategy against Islamic State to work. That strategy requires Iraq to provide the ground troops in the campaign against the Islamic extremists, and the Sunnis will join such an effort only if they can foresee a secure homeland for themselves in a reconfigured Iraq. Without Sunni participation, the deployment of U.S. air power will mean that we are taking sides in what is, in effect, a civil war between Shiite and Sunni factions. We obviously do not want to do that.
It does seem clear that at some time in the foreseeable future, that is within the next several decades, the map of the Middle East is going to be redrawn. This is likely to be a messy and often bloody business that all Western countries, including the United States, would be wise to avoid, thereby allowing the Islamic world to fashion its own fate. No matter how ingenious the future architects of the new Middle Eastern geography prove to be, crisscrossing sectarian and tribal allegiances will make it impossible to align national borders with one preferred version of Islam.
As a result, the confederation model, rather than the nation-state, could serve a useful purpose until that distant day when Islam embraces Jefferson's version of a secular society.
Joseph J. Ellis' book on the era of the Articles of Confederation, "The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution," will be published in the spring.