I listened to the president’s speech last week at the Naval Academy. It was pretty much what he has said all along. He believes that democracy can be implanted at the point of a gun and that, once implanted in Iraq, it will spread to the rest of the Middle East.
He’s wrong, in my opinion. If we analyze what makes us a free nation, we will see where he is wrong.
First and foremost, we have a 200-year tradition of the military bowing to civilian rule. Yes, I know it’s in the Constitution, but the Constitution is just words on parchment. If the military men didn’t believe it, they could easily take control of the country. They never have. They have never even tried or thought about it seriously. That is to their very great credit.
There is no such tradition in Iraq or in any of the Arab countries. A willingness to obey the civilian authorities even though you have the guns and they don’t is not something that can be taught in a few weeks of training. Maybe this Iraqi army we are creating will stay in its barracks, and maybe it won’t. Any old Middle East hand would bet that it won’t.
Freedom of speech is another characteristic of our culture, which predates the American Revolution. Even we, however, sometimes infringe on free speech, especially in time of war. Again, there is no such tradition in Iraq or in the other Arab countries. Their tradition is that you are free to speak if the ruler says you can speak. Neither of Iraq’s temporary governments the one we appointed or the one the Iraqis elected has been especially tolerant of Iraqi criticism.
Ironically, the greatest example of free speech and a free press in the Middle East is al-Jazeera television, which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush both seem to hate. They hate it because it reports what they don’t want reported, which is, after all, the essence of a free press. To our everlasting shame, we bombed al-Jazeera’s offices in Afghanistan and in Baghdad. The official lie that they were both accidents doesn’t hold a teacup of water. The idea that two small offices in different countries but belonging to the same company could be hit from 15,000 feet by accident is improbable as hell.
Another irony, if you are into that sort of thing, is that the only democratically elected government in the Muslim part of that region is Iran’s, and again, our government is definitely not happy about that.
A third characteristic of a free society is that the authorities must respect the rights of individuals. Even with our long tradition, that is a constant battle for us. Witness the charges of police brutality, the occasional cases of prisoner abuse, not to mention what our military has done in Iraq and Afghanistan. But then again, there is no such tradition of respecting the rights of individuals at all in Iraq. Recently, the former prime minister said that abuses of citizens under the present Iraqi government are just about as bad as they were under Saddam Hussein. It requires extraordinary restraint for people in authority not to abuse their authority, especially when they believe they are right and the person abused is wrong.
It took several centuries for the ideas of freedom to take root in the United Kingdom and its offspring, which includes us. These are not ideas and traditions that can be forced on people. It’s true that everyone longs to be free free to do as he or she pleases without regard for the rights of anyone else.
The president has bought into the neoconservative idea that we can spread democracy in the Middle East and now appears to believe he’s God’s man doing God’s will. That’s part of the tragedy of human history people with good intentions doing bad things. As long as he defines victory as a permanently free and democratic Iraq, then all he will ever know is defeat.