Tyrannus in Titula

Query: what lesson has mass death, destruction, bloodshed, and all-around living hell taught the US government about its war in Iraq? Nothing. Or barely nothing. Or maybe just a little bit of something. In any case, it needs to learn that the US is not necessarily God on Earth, and that there is some limit to what rivers of blood can accomplish.

The following words are dated December 22, 2004, and appeared in the Wall Street Journal:

The audacious attack on a U.S. military base in Iraq yesterday that left at least 22 dead, including 15 U.S. soldiers, reignites a simmering debate over whether the large U.S. presence is becoming an impediment to progress toward a stable government there…. there has been growing sentiment among some senior military officials that the large U.S. presence in the country is helping fuel the insurgency it is intended to combat. These officials argue that U.S. troops might be undermining the legitimacy of the interim Iraqi government and creating the impression that an unpopular occupation will continue indefinitely.

Now, a comment like this can only astound anyone with a clear head about the Iraq war. This bloodshed began nearly two years ago, and only now are a few hesitatingly suggesting the incredibly obvious. The War on Terror began more than two years ago, a war that might as well have been designed to increase terrorism and confirm the view of those who have concluded that the US threatens the world.

But those who are shocked to read my paragraph above, who regard it as somehow controversial to suggest that the war is having the opposite effect of its supposed intent, to realize that the US presence is not a liberating force but a destabilizing one, to conclude that progress is being inhibited rather than furthered by the occupation, these people are sadly caught up in what can only be considered intellectual delusion.

And yet, this is precisely where the American establishment, particularly its conservative wing, finds itself. They have been unwilling to believe that displays of force will not cause the population to submit. They have blamed all war errors on too little bloodshed and destruction rather than too much. Their constant advice has been to kill more, destroy more, show ever more resolve, and be ever less squeamish about the innocents killed.

What historical parallels exist to those who believed that this war would liberate, pacify, and inspire a region to embrace liberty? One thinks of the Roman armies marching and killing in the name of civilization. And yet the parallel isn’t quite there, because Roman imperialism lacked an ideological basis that leads to fanaticism of the type on display here. A better parallel would be the Bolsheviks, who were convinced that the new dawn would arrive once the capitalist class and their offspring were wiped out.

It is true that many supporters of the Iraq War are simply power-mongering liars and sadists who appreciate how the war keeps them and their patrons at the controls. Other supporters come from the class of merchants who stand to benefit from reconstruction contracts and sales of war-related products (though it is becoming increasingly difficult to find private enterprises willing to take the risk in Iraq).

And yet, I continue to believe that what is at the root of all the problems is intellectual error. Something at the heart of American culture leads us to believe that everyone in the world would be pleased to be ruled by us. We seem to have great difficulty in sympathizing with the victims of US foreign policy. In addition, the whole of modern life seems to teach us that force is the answer to all problems. This is the basis of all domestic policy as recommended by both right and left. The Iraq War is nothing but an extension of this model.

The problem with this intellectual error is that it is constantly bumping into the reality of free will. All human beings everywhere in the world have within themselves the capacity for independent thought. They can decide on their own whether they want to obey their masters or take the risks inherent in revolt. They may pretend to obey, but then challenge authority when an opportunity presents itself. People can be very creative about finding ways around the most well-constructed central plan, outsmarting those with the biggest guns by doing the very thing that the powerful least expect.

There are many reasons why tyranny cannot last, but this is the core one. Of course there are degrees of tyranny. People will put up with a lot, as Jefferson observed, before they will take the risk of revolt, especially if that risk implies the certainty of death.

There are also different forms of tyranny. There is tyrannus in regimine, a home-grown despot who comes to power through (more or less) legitimate means and then begins to abuse that power and oppress people. If the tyrannus in regimine plays his cards right, he can pay off enough and protect enough interest groups to stabilize his rule. In terms of prudence, it might be better to put up with him than to overthrow him — at least this is what Jefferson taught.

The second kind is the tyrannus in titula. This is one who takes control through conquest or usurpation. In terms of degrees of legitimacy, this type is the most objectionable and the one most moral to resist, at least according the Western tradition of political thought from St. Thomas through Jefferson.

Rule by military conquest is the prime example of tyrannus in titula. It is completely consistent with Western principles to resist, precisely as many are doing in Iraq.

Far from hating our values and hating our freedoms, their resistance is actually a sign that they have embraced a prime value of ours (throwing off the usurper). Whether they are doing so to bring about an Islamic dictatorship, a secular strongman, a complete breakdown of the nation, or democratic freedom, we cannot know. But the principle that drives the resistance is a simple one: the tyrannus in titula is always subject to removal.

The main argument that war supporters use to justify what is going on runs this way: military occupation and martial law are awful, but far worse would be rule by Saddam. The first answer simply observes that choices should not be so constrained, anymore than Poland should have to choose between being ruled by Hitler or Stalin. A third option of freedom itself should never be ruled out. A second answer observes that a tyrannus in regimine has more legitimacy by its very nature than a tyrannus in titula, which will always be resisted.

It should not require such an explanation to demonstrate that people are naturally disinclined to appreciate rule by foreign masters. Even Bush once granted this: “They’re not happy they’re occupied. I wouldn’t be happy if I were occupied either.”

Iraqis are not happy. Many people are not happy. They won’t be happy until the US returns to minding its own business.