Skeptics Underestimate The Hunger for Liberty

Did we, as molting Iraq hawk David Brooks recently wrote, go into that country with a “childish fantasy” of liberation, rebuilding and acclaim, in Iraq and elsewhere, when we were done?

I cannot speak for other children or fantasists. But it seems to me that the following qualities have characterized the Iraq war, and will mark the other wars we may fight in the Terror War. They are present in all conflicts, won or lost; winners navigate them better, through a combination of power, determination, anticipation and luck. Let me collect them for future reference.

Childish fantasies. No one ever knows in detail what the next war will be like. Ironists distill their sweetest perfumes from rosy scenarios. Thomas Jefferson, on the eve of the War of 1812, said the conquest of Canada would be “a mere matter of marching”; socialites came out from Washington, D.C., as to a horse race, to watch the first battle of Bull Run. Children also like to give themselves the creeps, and some pre- and midwar fantasies are grimmer than reality. Edward Luttwak, an expert on the Roman legion and a frequent Cold War analyst of Soviet military strength for Commentary magazine, predicted that Saddam Hussein’s battle-hardened legions would inflict tens of thousands of casualties on American troops in the first Gulf War. One of the rare, accurate comments on war’s unpredictability was made by Hitler, who said that anyone who began a war was entering a dark room.

Unstable coalitions. All the world sent us sympathy cards after 9/11, and much of the world sent troops to Afghanistan to help topple the Taliban. Many fewer have joined us in Iraq, from which the war’s critics draw dire conclusions about President Bush’s diplomacy (though not, oddly, about Colin Powell’s). But coalitions often shift as the member states pursue their own interests. Reversals as spectacular as Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 are rare, but the forced smiles and the little betrayals are common enough. Nixon went to China during the Cold War; more to the point here, the Chinese received Nixon. The Soviets got the message. Sometimes the switchers switch back. If we find ourselves at odds with a rogue state that has no major oil contracts with France or the Russians, they may sing a different tune.

Deadly endgames. In one of H.G. Wells’ novels, he describes a fight between two boys, the lower-class narrator and some toff in training. Young milord, who has taken some boxing lessons, decks his opponent, then grandly offers a handshake. The hero pulls him down and they wrestle on. Wells sympathized entirely with the crafty hero, on the familiar grounds that rules written by the rich deserve to be broken. Leaving that dispute aside, the fact remains that peace rarely ends wars. This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education , the decision that struck down the South’s segregated school systems. But hadn’t Abraham Lincoln called for “a new birth of freedom” in the Gettysburg Address, 91 years before Brown ? The near-century gap between promise and the beginning of fulfillment was caused, among other things, by violent resistance to Reconstruction. Violent resistance to the reconstruction of Iraq is hardly news; the real news from Falluja, Karbala and Najaf may be that the nationwide Sunni-Shiite uprising against our rule has not materialized. Our enemies will try harder, of course. We should only not be surprised when they do.

Doubtful home fronts. When the news shows photos from Abu Ghraib around the clock, and the beheading of Nicholas Berg never, when Michael Moore wins the Palme d’Or at Cannes, how can a republic keep its spirits up? How could the great leaders of the past have led, in the face of 24-hour coverage of misjudgments, blunders, poor planning, overreaction and deaths from friendly fire? Yet the predecessors of George W. Bush and Tony Blair suffered all these things too, albeit at a slower tempo, and somehow they managed. The near half-century from the sinking of the Maine to the surrender on the Missouri was a period of unusual wartime unanimity in this country. But earlier wars were more like Vietnam. During the Civil War, New York City often behaved like an enemy town. The city’s leadership opposed the draft; their constituents rioted against it. Even Horace Greeley, the anti-slavery editor of the New York Tribune , fretted over every battlefield reversal. During the Revolutionary War, New York was actually an enemy town, supplying loyalist units for the British occupiers. For every ailment, time supplies its own remedy. The same ether that transmits photos of naked Iraqis suffering through G.I. sex shows also gives us Iraqis blogging about their newfound freedoms, and Iranians yearning for freedom of their own.

Tempting liberty. One of the hopes of the Bush administration, as it prepared to unseat Saddam Hussein, was that an Iraq purged of tyranny and fanaticism might serve as an inspiration and a model to a region sunk in both, from nominal enemies of ours like Iran to nominal friends like Saudi Arabia. It was an audacious vision, seemingly at odds with the strain of American foreign-policy prudence that runs from Washington’s farewell address to Dr. Kissinger writing his prescriptions for realpolitik. It could be defended on the grounds that 9/11 laid the task at our doorstep. If a decent government could be erected in the heart of Araby and Islam, then the struggle before us would be all the more clearly not a clash of civilizations, but a clash between civilization and barbarism.

Liberty, as Edmund Burke wrote during an earlier period of hope, is power, and one must always ask what men propose to do with their newfound power. We know what Moqtada al-Sadr would do with power: establish a theocracy subservient to Iran. We are now squabbling over what Ahmad Chalabi wanted to do with power. The temptations of abuse are many; liberty can easily be its own undoing.

But the desire for it is also tenacious. No people can, with confidence, be put outside the pale. Jihadists would say that Muslims are above the temptations of liberty; skeptics would say that they are beneath them; multiculturalists, who are really skeptics in disguise, would argue that they understand liberty in a different sense. Millions of Muslims conform to these perceptions. But millions also feel the tug, wanting not to be jailed without reason or veiled without choice. That is a factor that must also be entered in our calculations.

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