Do Libyans need the help — or “help” — we gave the Iraqis in bringing down their tyrant? Or is it more likely that the Iraqis should have been left to free themselves, a la the Tunisians and Egyptians?
While I supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the recent uprisings in the Arab world have given me pause. I defended our intervention in Iraq partly on the grounds that it showed that the U.S. valued Muslim people’s freedom. It was a way of saying that their lives are worth no less than ours, that they are no less capable of democracy and self-rule than we are. The invasion seemed to me to be egalitarian, non-racist, in the best American tradition. I also used to tell people that if I thought the Allies ought to have made a much bigger effort to save Europe’s Jews in the 1940s, it was incumbent upon me to support a similar effort to punish genocide now.
But now that two Arab countries have liberated themselves, it occurs to me that our Iraq intervention might have been the result of condescension, too. We assumed they couldn’t free themselves. But now we can wonder whether the Iraqis might have overthrown Saddam Hussein this winter, as the uprisings moved east from Tunisia. (The problem with this counterfactual is that under Saddam, Iraq had no mobile phone network or public Internet access, and if that had still been the case now, it would have been very tough to organize
demonstrations.) And this would almost certainly have been a better outcome for all concerned.
There’s much to be said for a no-fly zone in Libya, and no ruler can be allowed, in this day and age, to fire on unarmed protesters. But there is also something to be said for doing as little as possible beyond fending off a massacre. Support the protesters verbally, yes.
But make an American show of force in Libya? Not unless the opposition implores us to do so.
A spokesman for the opposition National Libyan Council, human rights lawyer Abdul Hafidh Gogha, said last week, “We don’t want and we won’t accept any foreign intervention on our soil. We started this revolution, and we will finish it.”
The glory of this revolt of the Arabs — their greatest deed in hundreds of years — is in its autonomy. The Iraqis did not win their freedom for themselves, and accepting what Johns Hopkins University Professor Fouad Ajami has called “the foreigners’ gift” almost tore them apart. Besides the obvious heap of bodies our intervention left behind, there’s the unappetizing nature of the resulting Iraqi government — currently involved in rounding up its own peaceful demonstrators and making them disappear.
Some of the concern for the people of the Arab tyrannies now manifested in the American press is genuine. But some is part of a cynical effort to get on the right side of history and cozy up to newly free peoples. The people of Egypt and Bahrain and Yemen know exactly how much we bled for their freedom: not at all. We’ve propped up their tyrants for a generation. As future free media in these countries bring the details to light, the Arab world will have plenty of fodder for reproaching the West.
Oddly enough, the Arab peoples now bringing down their despots themselves may end up liking us more now that they are free — precisely because it is no thanks to us. True friendship is between equals, and for the Arabs, what matters isn’t equality in GDP or number of patents obtained. It’s moral equality.
The Arab men and women who win their freedom with their own courage and blood are the equals of our Founding Fathers, and they know it.
They can hold their heads high among the peoples of the world. This isn’t to ignore the fragility of many Arab civil societies, their oppression of half their numbers (women), or the tough road ahead as the Arab nations free their economies and media. But nations of deservedly proud people will contribute more to world security than states of the humiliated.
The new Arab states will have to be founded on broad coalitions, like our own body politic. And they will have to work out their own futures in the rough and tumble of politics. The conversations that Arabs need to have these days aren’t with us, but with each other. The greatest help we can offer them now is to treat them as moral equals, and agents of their own destiny.