Following my recent anti-war columns, a few readers
have asked this legitimate question: How does the United
States government promote democracy and freedom in
places such as Iraq, where dictators abuse their people
and run things with an iron fist?
A similar question plagued America's sixth president,
John Quincy Adams.
In an 1821 address, he, the secretary of state at the
time, responded to critics who had asked, "What has
America done for the benefit of mankind?"
"Wherever the standard of freedom and independence
has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her
benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not
abroad, in search of monsters to destroy." Adams made a
philosophical argument, emphasizing that "America's
glory is not dominion, but liberty," but he made a
practical argument as well.
"She well knows that by once enlisting under other
banners than her own were they even the banners of
foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond
the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest
and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition,
which assume the colors and usurp the standard of
freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would
insensibly change from liberty to force ..."
Who can argue with that wisdom? Yet America is
inextricably involved in every hot spot everywhere. All
our involvements use the standard of freedom, but end up
being about force.
Consider the situation in Bosnia, which has faded
from public view since Bill Clinton's nation-building
experiment there. The American overseer there once
bragged about his dictatorial powers, which have been
used to disqualify candidates for office the U.S.
government doesn't like. Democracy? No. Force?
Certainly. My guess is that Iraq will devolve into a
similar situation, especially if the Shiite-majority
Iraqi population wants to elect a radical cleric as
During war, people cede power to the central
government so that it can "protect" them. Citizens who
could once be counted on to oppose excessive government
power, liberty-sapping regulations and obscene levels of
taxation have grown quiet, preferring instead to cheer
on a foreign war.
No one doubted that the United States forces would,
at some point sooner or later, roll over the Iraqi
forces. But already the best-laid plans to impose a
democratic society on a fractious Third World country
that has never known democracy are providing signs of
trouble. First there was the looting, which American
forces did nothing to stop, even allowing destruction of
priceless antiquities. "No to America, No to Saddam,"
chanted as many as 20,000 Iraqis protesting
U.S.-sponsored talks in Nassiriya designed to start
rebuilding civil government, according to Reuters
reports last week.
On April 10, two clerics were hacked to death by an
angry mob during what the United States had hoped to be
a highly publicized session of peace and reconciliation.
Other reports point to the emergence of radical Islamic
clerics in the wake of the breakdown of civil order, and
abuses against Arabs by U.S. allies, the Kurds.
Yet some war whoopers are eager to take the war to
Syria now. At some point, even the most ardent war
supporters have to realize that the United States
treasury isn't a bottomless pit. Some war supporters
argue that "we" should be willing to pay any price for
I'll suggest to them the same thing that I suggest to
liberals who argue that "we" should pay any price to
eliminate poverty or "save" the environment: The
government always fails at such broad-based endeavors,
and it always costs a fortune. How about war supporters
agree to, say, a $500 a month federal surcharge to pay
for Iraqi democracy? Can't put a price on freedom, can
Imposing democracy on a people from the top down
perhaps has worked a time or two under certain unusual
circumstances, but it's not the model (and it isn't
"worth it" if your family is collateral damage). There
will, of course, be exceptions to this
non-interventionist rule, but the burden of proof ought
to be on those who propose the use of military force not
on those of us who say, "slow down a minute."
Sure, most Iraqis are probably thrilled at the end of
a vicious totalitarian regime. No doubt, there were
torture chambers and death squads and all the other
nasty stuff that goes along with a government run by
thugs constrained by nothing but their own whims.
Remember, though, this war wasn't originally
justified as a crusade to liberate Iraq from its
oppressors. It was launched as a pre-emptive action to
stop a "Hitlerian" madman from launching strikes on the
United States. So far no weapons of mass destruction
have been found, and the quick crumbling of the regime
(without the use of WMDs, even in its last gasps of
power) suggests that the Hitler analogy was
So, the rationale has shifted to democratization.
Doug Bandow, the Cato Institute senior fellow and
foreign policy expert, notes the "the hilarious
emergence of conservatives as Wilsonians." Remember, the
right has traditionally promoted foreign wars only in
service of national interests, whereas the left has
promoted so-called humanitarian wars - i.e.,
democracy-building, nation-building and the like.
Bandow points to a few problems with this Democracy
at Gunpoint. First, there is an easy list of 30 or 40
nations that are run by brutal despots. In the Congo,
for instance, 3 million people have been slaughtered
over the last decade.
This leads to the real question: "What is your
criterion? If we go everywhere, it will take an imperial
A fascinating article in the May issue of Reason
magazine chronicled the downfall of totalitarianism in
the Czech Republic, with an emphasis on the brave
actions of Vaclav Havel, the writer who later became the
country's president. Admittedly, Havel became a
supporter of U.S. war in Iraq, but his own country
escaped its shackle because he and other dissidents
stood up to the regime.
In Cuba this month, that country's dictator stepped
up a reign of terror against dissidents who were brave
enough to call for reforms despite the consequences.
Some 11,000 Cubans - an amazing number, given the
repercussions - signed a petition calling for an opening
of the communist state.
Even in a dreadful, totalitarian state, freedom must
be essentially home grown, flowing from the bottom
Can Americans publicize another government's evils?
Can our government exert pressure on those countries?
Can we admonish liberals such as Jimmy Carter who visit
totalitarian states and make apologies for
Yes, yes and yes.
But should we send the Marines hither and yon,
imposing "freedom" at gunpoint? Well, we certainly are
trying. But it would be far better for freedom - ours
and everyone else's - if America followed the words of
Adams and served as "the well-wisher to the freedom and
independence of all [but] the champion and vindicator
only of her own."