Sunday, March 30, 2003

Revisiting Liberation

Tibor R. Machan

One side says, "It’s Liberation," the other says "Its Imperialism." Well, mightn't it be both?
During the heydays of the Soviet Union, its armies were always going about liberating places and people. When Nicaragua was run by the tyrannical regime taking its orders from the USSR, back in the 80s, its leaders spoke incessantly about liberating the people there even when this involved forcibly imposing on them innumerable measures they resisted.
Even in ordinary human relationships, say between friends, it is often thought that imposing certain strictures on someone frees the person, really; so all that complaints are misplaced. Just think if the policy of intervention recommended to friends and family of drug abusers! You coerce so as to set free! Or so the story is told and when it comes to the War in Iraq this can cause confusion for people.
The fact is that although within a given context the term “freedom” or “liberty” can be clear enough, there are several general definitions of it that actually conflict. In one sense, for example, the intervention by friends of a drug abuser amounts to depriving the latter of liberty. That is the liberty we have in mind meaning acting on one’s own judgment, following one’s own choices, determining one’s own actions whatever they may be. Those doing the intervention are, so understood, depriving someone of liberty, of his or her freedom. But if one focuses on the goal of the intervention, well the story changes because forcing someone to stop abusing drugs can free that person to do many far better things.
And if one thinks that millions of people are like the drug abuser, carrying out with a way of life that hinders true progress, true flourishing, then perhaps one believes, also, that they need the kind of liberation that will enable them to do what they should, what will benefit them. That is just how the Soviets saw it when they “liberated” the Czechs and Hungarians and all the rest by invading their countries and occupying and nearly micromanaging them. They were freeing the people of their ignorant way of life. The same goes for the leaders of Nicaragua.
So, then, what is one to think about the liberation of Iraq? It’s a mixed bag, that one.
On the one hand the rhetoric is about the freedom that involves getting rid of other people trying to run one’s life. This is what George Bush is saying when he refers to how after the war the people of Iraq will be free. The USA will have liberated them from the clutches of Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, though, many think the USA wants to control Iraq, run it to conform to its own priorities (such as the production of cheap oil), in which case the liberation is akin to the sort the Soviets perfected. Even many Americans, such as entertainer Bill Maher, tend to believe that people in Iraq just aren’t up to running their own lives, incapable of democratic self-government. Their culture hasn’t prepared them for this; their religion is too much of a yoke around their necks. Thus, maybe unintentionally, they support intervention-type liberation and support those who think Iraqis need Americans and Brits teaching them proper politics.
It is important to know which sort of liberation is in fact going on in Iraq. And that’s not easy to do since when a policy is so controversial as this one, those doing the arguing tend to load their terms and not always let us in on just what they mean by them. Those opposed to USA policy in Iraq have a stake in characterizing it as interventionist liberation, those for it just the opposite. And some obfuscate matters unintentionally.
We are left with the task of scrutinizing not just their terms but, often, their motives, which are awfully difficult to know for sure.

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