Liberty at the Point of a Sword

Here’s a rule we should keep in mind any time we feel compelled to use force to intervene in another country’s internal politics – All governments are, to a large degree, representative governments.  We like to imagine that in places like North Korea or Afghanistan liberty would bloom if the nation were freed from the dominion of a few bad men.  Hopefully we’ve seen enough of democratization by now to recognize the foolishness of that notion.  Governments, democratic or otherwise, rise and fall from the political culture around them.

Saddam Hussein wasted none of his precious time personally listening to people’s phone conversations or torturing political opponents.  He had legions of willing minions who did this work for him.  Almost all of them are still there, along with the culture that created them.  It is possible to invade a country, defeat its military, replace its leaders, and hold an election.  However, no matter what weapons you use or how skilled your soldiers, you cannot transform a culture by defeating it in battle.  Chances are the government they elect in the wake of your liberating efforts will look suspiciously similar to the one you overthrew.

So is Ron Paul right?  Should we bring all our troops home, close the State Department, and start stockpiling ammunition?  There seems to be something in Republican DNA that drives us toward black and white extremes.  You don’t have to be Jimmy Carter to recognize that America can be a force for liberty in the world without turning our military into a roaming Freedom Force.

Here’s a suggestion I’d like to float out there, just an idea, a sort of conversation starter.  Maybe there are responsible grownups out there in other countries who are qualified to make decisions for themselves.  Perhaps, indulge me here a little, those people should be responsible for shaping political decisions in their own countries.

And here’s the radical part.  Those people might not decide to make the sacrifices it takes to set up democratic governments.  They might not even want basic liberties badly enough to insist on them for themselves.  That is not exactly “OK.”  But it is not something we need to take on as our problem.  There may be people out there more willing to tolerate Saddam Hussein than to accept the burden of liberty.  Try to build a democracy on top of that culture and it will reward your efforts with hostility and quickly revert to form.

In the long run, a country like Iran, allowed to work its way toward liberty without foreign interference has much better prospects for freedom than the bombed out shell of Iraq with its democratic facade.  As events unfold in those two countries we are likely to learn the true value of patience.  What we are seeing in Iran, as in places like Lebanon and Egypt, is the natural progress of liberty, worked out within their own cultures through great struggle and pain.  Over time, a responsible approach to Iraq would likely have produced a similar result, at a savings to us of thousands of precious American lives and upwards of a trillion dollars.

I grew up in the South well over a century after the Civil War.  I think I can say with some confidence that losing a war does not change people’s minds.  Politics arises from culture, and the influence of culture will bubble up through any political system pasted over it.  Change takes time and it does not flow from the top down.

For America, promoting liberty in the world means being liberty in the world.  We can’t export liberty like a product, or drop it from a fighter jet.  It will only succeed where people want it badly enough to die for it.  By being a model of liberty, by supporting those who embrace it, and withholding support from regimes that resist it, we can be the best possible force for freedom.


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