When I was in grade school, the sports world was electrified by what had previously been considered an impossible feat: Roger Bannister, a Briton, ran a mile in less than four minutes. Bannister had trained for months to accomplish this, and his achievement brought him worldwide celebrity. Today, high-school athletes routinely run miles in considerably less that four minutes; it’s actually pretty routine. What has changed? Have humans simply gotten faster in 50 years? No. What’s changed is that once Bannister ran a four-minute mile people realized it could be done. A psychological barrier was broken, and a potential that was always there was unleashed.
This thought occurred to me as I heard Secretary Donald Rumsfeld questioned on one of the Sunday-morning talk shows about U.S. plans to have the Iraqis draft a constitution in less than a year. George Will asked the question I have heard and read over and over again in the media: It took ten years for the United States to draft and adopt its own constitution; how can we expect the Iraqis to do it in a matter of months?
The answer is implicit in the story of the four-minute mile. When the Founding Fathers assembled in Philadelphia to draft a constitution, nothing like it had ever been done before. There wasn’t even a concept of a constitution; the Articles of Confederation that were then in effect had functioned as a kind of treaty among the original 13 states after they had freed themselves from British rule. The extraordinary feat of the Founders was to develop both the idea that a constitution was possible and the written document that proved capable of governing a highly disparate collection of communities–urban and rural, commercial and agricultural–that had only the most rudimentary form of communication among them. It was not surprising that it took years.
The constitutional convention that will, we hope, shortly assemble in Iraq, will not face the fundamental difficulties that the Founders confronted. They will know what a constitution is–there will be no difficulty agreeing on the concept–and they will have hundreds of examples of written constitutions that have been developed and are currently in use around the world. They will also have today’s instant communications to use among themselves, with their constituents, and with experts and supporters around the world. Most important, they will know that writing a constitution is not an unprecedented feat like Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile–it is a path that many other peoples have followed since the American Founders showed the way in 1789.
None of this is to suggest that writing a constitution for Iraq will be easy. The obstacles are huge, and we should not expect uninterrupted progress. Overcoming historic ethnic and religious rivalries alone will be daunting. But to compare what Iraqis will soon undertake with the drafting of the U.S. constitution misses the essential point of the Bannister effect: The most important barrier to human accomplishment is not the various obstacles that lie in the road but the crippling belief that what they are trying to do cannot be done. The Iraqis know that drafting a constitution is possible, even under highly adverse circumstances. In this sense, the most significant obstacle has been cleared away.