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What the Articles of Confederation Tell Us About US Failures in Iraq

Updated: Jul 2, 2022

By Ben Brodt


Few, if any, Americans have had more experience with nation building than our Founding Fathers. After the War for Independence, the Founders had to create and implement a new constitution, build governing institutions from scratch, and create a completely new political system, all while dealing with a highly divided and anti-federalist, post-conflict society. US policymakers in 2003 would face a nearly identical situation in Iraq.

After declaring independence from England, the fledgling United States set about doing two things: rebuilding a nation with institutions included, and defending its claims of sovereignty from England with force. In creating a new nation, the Founders faced many strategic dilemmas that they needed to address, and they were forced to prioritize certain issues over others. What they chose, in the end, was winning the war and protecting individual rights.

The first document the Founders came up with in 1777 was the Articles of Confederation (AoC). Worried about repeating the tyranny of England, the drafters gave as little power to Congress as possible. The ability to collect taxes, engage in national defense, extradite criminals, and trade with other states were all optional under the AoC. The power rested in the sovereignty of the individual state, and the only authority Congress was granted was the ability to keep a state in check as long as nine out of thirteen other states agreed.

In 1787, Massachusetts increased efforts to collect taxes, sparking an uprising by 4,000 Revolutionary War veterans. Congress, being unable to raise or finance an army to put down the rebellion, left the Massachusetts state militia to deal with the revolt. In the end, even this was not enough, and a privately funded militia was created to finally stop it.

Similar to the British security forces pre-independence, Iraq also utilized severe repression to maintain internal stability. Before the invasion, Saddam’s Iraq was one of the most heavily surveilled states in the world. His secret police totalled upwards of 87,000 secret police, commanded by his son Qusay. This is approximately one secret police officer for every 294 Iraqi citizens. During the Ba’athist reign, these security forces “disappeared” 250,000 people, quelling multiple Shiite and Kurdish rebellions.

Immediately following the deposition of the Saddam administration, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) focused all its efforts on hunting down influential members of the Ba’ath party, electing new officials, and ensuring America’s interests were protected within the new government. By disbanding the police and military and attempting to create new institutions from scratch, the US and CPA struggled with a serious power vacuum during the early years of the war. Without local, highly trained and experienced security forces, post-invasion Iraq slipped into disorder and chaos from which an insurgency could arise.

As the new Iraqi government attempted to establish the rule of law, the insurgency grew. In 2007, the US began a new strategy which would surge Iraq with more than 20,000 additional soldiers, hoping that a strong military and police presence would lead to a decrease in violence. As more soldiers poured into Iraq, violence decreased throughout 2007 and 2008. The Surge was a success.

Likewise, in the United States, after the new Constitution was passed, the US was much better prepared to handle insurgencies. In 1791 another tax protest broke out, but unlike Shay’s Rebellion, this Whiskey Rebellion was squashed by a federal army of more than 13,000, led by President Washington himself. By giving Congress the ability to raise armies without the consent of the states, the US was much better positioned to defend against domestic uprisings which threatened the stability of the entire nation.

In both early America and post-invasion Iraq, the governing administration made the folly of loosening the security system too quickly, creating security vacuums where insurgencies could grow. Both governments hoped to put the conflict behind them and begin business as usual as quickly as possible, not knowing that their eagerness would prevent business as usual for a long time more.

Today, however, federalism has succeeded in Iraq. Even without a major police or security force presence, the Iraqi military was able to defeat ISIS with the help of paramilitaries and regionally aligned militias (and some international assistance). In the US, too, federalism has been a success story for over 200 years. Many would use this to say that a weak security apparatus is not to blame for these failings, but something else.

ISIS’s ability to gain so much ground so quickly highlights the continued failures with Iraq’s internal defenses. As sectarian violence increased in the early 2000s, the Surge was the only thing that led to a decrease in violence. After troop levels had been brought back down, violence increased until 2014, when ISIS began its campaign and international intervention was required.

The US learned many lessons from its initial failings in Iraq. Unfortunately, incremental state building was not one of them. Going forward, if the US should ever need to wield its nation building skills again, it must make a heavy security presence its top priority, even if this means keeping in place commanders and institutions from the previous regime. The US must have strong, seasoned domestic security in order to transform a nation into a free and peaceful democracy.


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