Not too many months after Donald Rumsfeld told us how he and Bush were like the founding fathers, except of Iraq, Condolezza Rice, national security adviser, has weighed in to further explain how the bloody and destructive occupation figures into American political history. She says that there is an analogy between Iraqi politics in 2003 and US race politics in the 1960s.
Let’s see how this might work. Just as the civil rights protestors resisted the police, Iraqis are resisting the U.S.? No, that’s not it. Just as the segregationist resorted to violence, including most notoriously blowing up the church in Birmingham, the US is bombing and killing in Iraq? No. that’s not it. Just as blacks had to fight for voting rights, Iraqis fight for the right to select leaders in their own country and not have them imposed by a powerful elite? No, that’s not it.
See if you can follow Rice’s rationale: “We must never, ever indulge the condescending voices who allege that some people in Africa or in the Middle East are just not interested in freedom, they’re culturally just not ready for freedom or they just aren’t ready for freedom’s responsibilities. That view was wrong in 1963 in Birmingham, and it is wrong in 2003 in Baghdad and in the rest of the Middle East.”
Precisely who among the war’s opponents says that Iraqis are not ready for freedom? She doesn’t say. If anyone does believe that it is the US war planners, who have scuttled elections, hampered free expression, censored the press, and blocked private enterprise. It’s hard to say what Rice means by “freedom.” Seven thousand dead civilians and 20,000 wounded? The US hasn’t seen carnage like that on its soil since the Civil War.
The analogy she makes is so preposterous that it hardly needs refutation. Why would she even attempt it? Because an essential if ridiculous aspect of American political culture is that all political controversies must eventually reduce to race and racial history (just as all foreign policy issues must be discussed by way of Hitler analogies). The goal in this game is to position your beliefs within the spectrum of conventional race history by being on the side of the angels, which is to say, the civil-rights movement.
This is what Bill Clinton would do whenever he was hounded. It is what Clarence Thomas did when his Supreme Court nomination was in trouble. It is what the Christian Right does all the time in defending their assertion that they should have a voice in public affairs (no back of the bus for them). A host of race hustlers have made a living at this. Yes, the rhetorical strategy grows tedious, but it has never been as less plausible than when used as a defense of an utterly indefensible military occupation of a foreign government.
And yet perhaps there is a case for trying to interpret her analogy in a way that makes some degree of sense. Rice clearly views the US presence in Iraq as a force for freedom. Let’s leave aside the reality and pretend she is right. Let’s just define occupation by the federal government as the embodiment of “freedom” by just redefining the term itself to mean any imposition by the US central government.
With that little change of understanding, the analogy begins to work. Unless we are satisfied with the public high-school version of postwar racial history, we need to see that the struggle over racial integration and racial segregation is part of a larger issue that goes back to the founding generation. That struggle was between decentralization and centralization, between local control and leviathan control.
The left-liberal habit is to dismiss all historical pleas for states rights as mere excuses for racist public policies. But this only shows their lack of appreciation for the essential role that federalism and decentralism have played in the long struggle for freedom itself. The need for smaller government doesn’t just refer to its functions and the scope of its power. It also refers to its locus of control. A large state with unified sovereignty is more likely to violate the rights and liberties of people than governments of divided sovereignty ruling over smaller territories.
Those who resisted the expansion of federal power in the 1950s and 60s had a strong case rooted in history. The consolidation of power is always a bad idea, even when it is done in the name of granting people freedom and rights. The so-called integrationists, for example, weren’t just against local laws that separated public restrooms, transportation, and schools by race. For them, it wasn’t enough to lobby against these laws at the state and local level. Above all else, they wanted federal government intervention, via the Supreme Court and executive edict, to abolish local control over schools and public services.
Not only that: the so-called integrationists wanted to remove discretion over these matters from private enterprise and insure that anything affecting race be handled by the federal government. Ultimately, that part of the “civil rights struggle” robbed people of their property rights and saddled commerce with race quotas and federal oversight that war on the freedom of association. To them, it didn’t seem to be an advance of freedom to put the federal government in charge, but rather a form of despotism.
Just so, most Iraqis do not see the US government as bringing freedom to Iraq, no matter how many times that Rice and Rumsfeld say that this is what they are doing. For Iraqis, they exchanged an orderly and "workable" despotism of Saddam Hussein for unorderly and unworkable despotism of a foreign power imposing martial law and raining bullets down on their towns and cities day after day. Thus only in this sense does Rice’s analogy hold up: anything done by the US government, no matter how dire the consequences, is regarded as an advance of freedom, while anything done to resist the advance of the state is seen as reactionary and backward.
There’s only one problem: Iraqis don’t care and don’t believe the mythology of US racial history, much less are they willing to believe that Rice really sympathizes with their plight. The Iraqis are resisting their supposed liberators, and doing so in every way they can. It is they who are singing “we shall overcome.”