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Where Will “Liberation” Lead?

by Michael Latham on Apr 15, 2003

The liberation of Iraq, the White House tells us, is well under way. With Saddam Hussein’s regime destroyed, American forces will install a new representative government. Democracy will replace tyranny, and freedom will rise from the ashes of brutality.

That vision certainly is appealing. From the nineteenth-century days of Manifest Destiny through the Cold War, Americans have long thought of themselves as a missionary people, uniquely called to bring the blessings of liberty to the oppressed. As publisher Henry Luce told the readers of Life magazine in 1941, the “American Century” would be one of democratic revolution.

“We have some things in this country,” he declared, “which are infinitely precious and especially American — a love of freedom, a feeling for the equality of opportunity, a tradition of self-reliance.” The United States, he proclaimed, would now spread those shining ideals throughout the world for the good of all humanity.

As Americans, we like to imagine ourselves in that redemptive role. “Liberation” will always sound better to us than “disarmament” or “containment.” It defines a clear victory. It reflects our dream of ourselves, a picture of the nation at its finest hour. It wraps us in reassuring nostalgia.

For many of us, the drive into Baghdad is a reprise of the triumphant push into Nazi-occupied Europe at the close of World War II. Administration officials find it easy to explain their current goals by invoking the democratization of Germany or Japan.

But the American record doesn’t always match the exalted rhetoric. U.S. policies helped the Germans and Japanese to create robust economies and democratic governments, but American leadership has also suffered from many failures of judgment and principle. In their search for security, U.S. policymakers have often embraced dictatorial governments willing to toe the American line. They have also undermined democratic governments that dared to chart a neutral or adversarial course.

During the Cold War, for example, the United States frequently aligned itself with regimes that ruthlessly suppressed democracy. Choosing to back dictators such as South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem, Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza, and Iran’s Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlevi, American cold warriors helped to arm secret police forces that crushed popular dissent around the globe. And they did this while claiming to defend the “free world.”

When the constitutionally elected government of Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz dared to undertake a comprehensive land reform campaign, nationalize corporate property and open diplomatic relations with communist countries in 1954, Washington was quick to orchestrate a military coup against it. The democratically elected government of Chile’s President Salvador Allende, committed to a sweeping socialist agenda, met the same fate when the Nixon administration moved to destroy it in 1973.

In the 1980s neoconservatives struggled to reconcile these obvious contradictions between democratic promises and repressive policies. The need to combat left-wing “totalitarian” regimes, they insisted, legitimated American support for right-wing “authoritarian” ones. Communists would never change; dictatorships might eventually liberalize under U.S. guidance.

History pointed in another direction. Leaders such as Somoza and the shah of Iran continued to oppress their populations until Marxist and Islamic revolutionary movements rose up to overthrow them. Yet that bastion of communism, the Soviet Union, a few years later turned toward the liberal reforms of glasnost on its own.

The Bush administration now faces a crucial test in its conduct toward Iraq. Will the post-Cold War era mark a new American commitment to democracy? Will the United States accept the risks that a genuinely democratic Iraq might present?

The language of liberation has great political utility. It has galvanized popular support and helped push aside the troubling, unanswered questions about whether going to war was in fact the only recourse in Iraq.

We would do well to remember, however, that democracy is a risky business. To promote it sincerely, American strategists must accept the possibility that a genuinely democratic government might pursue what appear to be uncooperative, suspect or even dangerous policies. If the Bush administration is committed to democracy in Iraq, it will have to accept all of democracy’s implications in a region where oil resources, the question of Palestine and the growth of Islamic radicalism present complex challenges.

A long-oppressed Shiite majority and an educated Iraqi middle-class will have objectives of their own. They are as aware of past American support for Saddam Hussein’s government as they are relieved to be rid of him. They will continue to look at America’s role in the Middle East with a critical eye. A truly democratic Iraqi electorate will most likely seek its own way in the world, find its own allies, and craft its own economic and foreign policies.

Does the Bush administration’s definition of democracy mean more than simply doing things the American way? Does liberation truly mean that Iraqis will be able to seek their own aspirations and govern themselves as they see fit? Washington will have to prove to the world that it does, or the war’s immense material and human costs will be all the more tragic.

Michael E. Latham is an associate professor of history at Fordham University. He is the author of "Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and 'Nation Building' in the Kennedy Era."