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Bush's concept of freedom is rigidly one-dimensional

October 15, 2004

A "free" Iraq. A "free" Afghanistan. Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! If there is a Holy Grail of President Bush's foreign policy, it is surely the concept of freedom. As was evident in the first 2004 presidential debate on September 30th, the President seems obsessed with the idea that America can and should make people "free." Bush's conception of freedom, however, is extremely simplistic and narrow-minded in many respects, and has seriously damaged America's credibility and standing in the world.

The fundamental problem with Bush's notion of freedom is that he never actually defines the term. In reality, freedom has many definitions, and means distinctly different things to different people. At its most basic level, freedom usually means the ability to control one's life and destiny. In practical terms, this means both the freedom to do certain things -- such as speak one's mind -- and the freedom from certain dangers, such as violence and economic ruin.

Bush's conception of freedom, however, is rigidly one-dimensional. To the White House, freedom is defined solely in a narrow political sense. Bush believes that if a nation such as Iraq or Afghanistan has what Americans consider a "democracy," in which citizens vote to elect their leaders, "freedom" is achieved. There are so many problems with this view that one does not know where to begin.

In the first place, Bush's conception of political freedom is much too narrow. He fails to consider that most non-Americans have the same feelings of patriotism toward their nations and cultures that Americans have. He doesn't realize that citizens of a nation may feel "freer" under a non-democratic government created by their own countrymen than under a democratic government forcibly imposed by a foreign power.

It is true that the first government will be less democratic for individuals. It will also, however, be seen by most of its citizens as a greater expression of their nation controlling its own destiny than a "democracy" created at the barrel of a gun by an invader will.

This was one of the mistakes American leaders made in Vietnam. They believed that most of the people of South Vietnam would prefer to live under the South Vietnamese government, which was ostensibly democratic (although in practice, it often amounted to a dictatorship) than under Ho Chi Minh's North Vietnamese government, which was communist. They failed to consider, however, that Ho also represented nationalism.

The central motif of Vietnam's history has been resistance to foreign invaders. To most Vietnamese, Ho was the ultimate symbol of the Vietnamese people taking charge of their own destiny. South Vietnam was seen, with a great deal of truth, as a virtual creation of the United States. The sense of national pride and collective freedom Ho represented far outweighed any increased political rights South Vietnamese might (or might not) have enjoyed under the South Vietnamese government.

When people analyze a situation in a foreign country, their judgments are usually severely clouded by there stereotypes they hold about that country and people. One of the best ways around this is to use analogies which force people to abandon their stereotypes. Imagine Americans in a similar position as Iraqis and Vietnamese.

Imagine that after winning the American Revolutionary War, George Washington declared himself king of the United States. Instead of a democracy, America became a monarchy. Americans did not choose their leaders. Instead, the "crown" of the U.S. was passed from one generation of the Washington family to another.

Imagine that today, while most other Western nations have become democracies, America remains a hereditary monarchy. Although many Americans have began grumbling about this, the House of Washington remains in firm control of the country.

Suppose that France, rather that the United States, is the world's only superpower. French President Jacques Chirac argues that America's King Michael III has continued to develop "weapons of mass destruction" even after a decade of U.N. resolutions forbidding him to do so, and that Michael III therefore poses a threat to the national security of France. Chirac argues his case before the United Nations. Most of the world finds Chirac's evidence completely unconvincing. Chirac says that if the U.N. won't unite behind him, he will use force himself.

Chirac orders an invasion of the United States. In a brilliant twenty day campaign, French forces race from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast to Alaska and Hawaii. Michael III is overthrown. Over the course of a year, French troops and police search the length and breadth of America for WMDs, from the Grand Canyon to the Florida Everglades. No weapons of mass destruction, however, are ever found. Meanwhile, France creates a democratic government for the U.S. An American president is elected.

Although he is roundly denounced for his unjustified invasion of the U.S., Chirac argues that even though no WMDs were found, a "free America" will be better for Americans and the world. Most Americans, however, do not feel this way. Even those who had wanted the U.S. to be a democracy are outraged at France. French flags are burned in New York and Los Angeles every day, and there is even talk of destroying the Statue of Liberty because it was given to America by France. Americans felt far more free under a monarchy created by Americans than they do under a "democracy" created by the French.

This scenario is fictitious. It is clear, however, that Americans would have major problems with "freedom" delivered by uninvited foreigners. Why shouldn't Iraqis feel similarly?

Bush not only defines political freedom too simplistically, he completely ignores the fact that to most people, freedom includes physical and economic security as well as political rights. Bush constantly claims that the war in Iraq is a critical element of the "war on terror." He seems oblivious, however, to the fact that the war has brought terrorism to Iraq itself on a scale the country has never known before.

In important ways, most Iraqis are arguably less free today then they were under Saddam Hussein. In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed "Four Freedoms" that all people and nations are entitled to. One of these was freedom from fear. Saddam was a dictator, but his violence was controlled. The violence which is occurring in Iraq today is far more scary for many Iraqis than that perpetrated by Saddam.

When Saddam was in power, people who were suspected of disloyalty to the regime were seized and executed. The Kurds and Shiites, the dominant groups of northern and southern Iraq respectively, were sometimes the collective target of Saddam's merciless wrath. Most Iraqis did not, however, have to live in daily fear of being blown to bits as they walk the streets. Bush constantly speaks of bestowing "freedom" on others without even attempting to place himself in the shoes of those supposedly receiving it.

U.S. officials often site Germany and Japan as successful examples of creating democratic governments in other nations. But there are critical differences between these nations and Iraq. The Allies were left in control of Germany and Japan as a result of aggression by those nations in World War II. The creation of new political systems was part of reconstruction programs for these countries. In the case of Iraq, it was the Americans who were the initial invaders. Although Bush likes to believe American troops were seen as "liberators," this is not how most Iraqis saw it.

In addition to ignoring the moral, emotional, and philosophical problems with his conception of freedom, Bush also neglects to consider the formidable logistical difficulties which stand in the way of his vision of the U.S. spreading liberty to other nations. It is obvious that unless Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other nation is going to become an American colony, U.S. troops cannot remain in these places indefinitely.

Bush ignores the fact that unless a government is willing to use brute force, as was Saddam, it is only as strong as the support it enjoys among its people. The existence of stable armies and police forces is absolutely essential in order for political freedom to be secure. These institutions are not robot-like entities. They are composed of individuals who have feelings and needs like everyone else. They need money to eat and support their families. Their members have their own feelings regarding their country, and the rest of the world.

If soldiers and police are not able to put food on their families' tables, or believe the government they are protecting is illegitimate, then law and order can collapse like a house leveled by an earthquake. Bush seems to take it for granted that the civil mechanisms necessary for freedom will work fine. In Iraq, law and order is an absolute dream at the present time. Even in Afghanistan, where a presidential election was recently held, continued stability is far from assured. Much of the country remains under the effective control of warlords.

Bush's obsession with what he considers "freedom," and the many problems with his approach to the issue, brings to mind the movie Air Force One, Wolfgang Petersen's 1997 action thriller. In this film, the American president (played by Harrison Ford) is flying home from a summit with the president of Russia. Suddenly, a group of ultra-nationalistic Russians hijack Air Force One, demanding the release of a Russian general who is in prison.

At one point in the film, the chief hijacker, Ivan Korshunov (played by Gary Oldman) angrily says to the president: "You have no idea what freedom means!" Korshunov goes on to say that his nation has been victimized by "gangsters and prostitutes." To this man, freedom clearly signifies something different than it does to the American president.

Freedom is a wonderful idea, and one of the most powerful concepts in human history. In order for freedom to be real, however, it must be meaningful to the people it is supposed to apply to. President Bush's approach to freedom is narrow-minded and one-sided, while completely ignoring the feelings of those he claims to be "liberating." Bush's approach has only served to increase hatred for the United States around the world, while doing more to weaken America's security than to strengthen it.

Lee Howard Hodges, B.A. M.A. Historical Studies, University of Maryland, Baltimore.

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