In The Way of Political Freedom

Uncommon advocates and adversaries in an undecided struggle

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

Those of us who enjoy political freedom often take it for granted, considering it a sort of natural resource that can be simply handed over to those peoples who lack it. But such freedom had to be invented in a particular time and place, and then tended, nurtured, and argued, fought and died for. In order to flourish, political freedom demands certain kinds of values, certain ways of looking at the world and regarding human beings, that have not existed in all times at all places, and so must be borrowed, learned, practiced, and reinforced. For though the desire for freedom is natural in every human being, it still has to compete with other powerful values and goods and needs just as natural and insistent, such as security or religious meaning or the sheer power to dominate others.

Yet despite these difficulties, despite the long, slow struggle of freedom over the centuries, despite all those times it seemed freedom would wither and die, in the last fifty years we have witnessed a flowering of political freedom throughout the world, with the result that now more humans live in free states than in unfree ones. And just in the last few months, we have seen the first shoots of freedom breaking through some of the toughest cultural soil in the world, the Islamic tribal states of the Middle East. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian Arab territories people are voting in legitimate elections; in Lebanon throngs are marching against twenty years of Syrian occupation; in Egypt a neo-pharaonic Mubarak is compelled to make gestures towards a legitimate election, and even in feudal Saudi Arabia, at least men are voting—what are we to make of these events?

First, we should avoid premature celebrations, as though the spread of freedom is a self-generating force that given some impetus at the right time will continue expanding on its own energy. The enemies of freedom are legion, and they are motivated in many cases by powerful human drives as compelling as the desire to be free. The process started in the Middle East faces resistance from deep-seated cultural ideals incompatible with political freedom. Islamicsharia or religious law, for example, in many cases simply can’t coexist intact with notions of individual freedom and autonomy due to all regardless of sex or religion. So too with tribal or clan loyalties that value the honor of the group over the rights of individuals. We would be naïve to think that freedom expressed in a few elections can automatically trump these other ancient values deeply ingrained in the culture of many Islamic societies.

Freedom can, in the long run, win out, but the struggle will be difficult, marked by setbacks and violence and a chaos that will make some long for the days of a tyranny that at least provided order and security. For the other historical truth about freedom’s progress is that it usually requires the violent repudiation of those alternatives that conflict with freedom. Consider the long struggle to liberate Eastern Europe from Soviet domination. There too, false starts—Hungary in 1956, the “Prague Spring” of 1968—were followed by brutal repression and the contraction of freedom. Yet the persistence of the West, particularly the United States, in resisting Soviet expansion, with force when necessary, and in supporting democratic movements ultimately paid off with the liberation of those nations and the imploding of one of the most tyrannous and murderous regimes in history.

Yet that success was not guaranteed and was long in doubt, for reasons that have particular relevance for the situation today in the Middle East. First, a certain kind of political leader had to arise in the West—a Ronald Reagan or a Margaret Thatcher—who saw clearly the effort and cost that would have to be paid in order to resist the power of tyranny. These leaders also knew that force and the threat of force were key to this resistance, and that negotiation, bartering, dickering, bribing and all the other diplomatic alternatives eventually would fail without the reality or threat of force. After all, the Soviet system survived not just because of oppressive force but because it satisfied some important human needs—national pride, security, the privilege and power of the elite and their satellites—even as it failed to deliver on others such as material comfort, religion, and freedom. In the case of such powerful incentives, sometimes only the threat of overwhelming destruction can convince people to abandon those “goods” that tyranny delivers.
We were fortunate, then, to have had a President like Ronald Reagan, who increased military spending, forged ahead with new military technologies that would give us an overwhelming advantage over our adversary, sent Pershing missiles to Europe, and most important, had a moral clarity about the stakes and the costs of resistance to tyranny, a clarity evident when he called the Soviet system an “evil empire” or in Berlin dared Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Reagan understood that the desire for freedom is inherent in all humans, but that for freedom to compete on a level playing field with those other human needs, all those who held oppressive power by exploiting such needs had to be made to fear the credible threat of destruction that would follow their continuing assaults on freedom. For once freedom has a chance to be exercised, it usually wins in a fair fight.

But remember the resistance within the West to Reagan’s policies—the derision he faced from the intellectual elite about the “evil empire” speech, or the massive protests against deploying the Pershing missiles or against resisting Soviet adventurism in Central America and Afghanistan? This brings us to another powerful impediment to the spread of freedom—the intellectual and moral pathologies of free Westerners. Taking for granted the political freedom and material prosperity they enjoyed, many in the West no longer wanted to pay the price of defending and advancing freedom.

Some were liberal idealists and pacifists who thought rational discussion, treaties, summits, bartering, or merely boosting the esteem of tyrannous states could ultimately prevail without the bloody, messy, sometimes dirty consequences that always follow the use of force. Others were leftist ideologues sympathetic to the values of the enemy, and still others were riddled with self-doubt about their own societies and the goods they enjoyed, no longer truly believing that their way of life and their values were worth killing and dying for.

Whatever the cause, the result was a failure of nerve among many in the West, one perhaps best epitomized by the U.S. abandonment of South Vietnam in 1975, thus losing the peace of a war won by the sacrifice of 60,000 Americans. In short, appeasement of tyranny rather than resistance characterized the West and emboldened the Soviet Union, not to mention the Islamists who duplicated the debacle at the embassy in Saigon with one four years later at the embassy in Tehran. That the U.S. prevailed in the Cold War despite the powerful forces of appeasement dominating the highest cultural and educational levels of our society is astonishing, and testimony to both the greatness of President Reagan and the good sense of the American citizens who still knew that in order to survive and flourish, freedom requires hard, sometimes messy work and sacrifice.

So too today, the advancement of freedom in the Middle East has partly been the consequence of a vigorous President who believes in both the power of freedom and the costs that must be paid to help freedom flourish, specifically the use of force with all the unfortunate, unforeseen consequences of violent action. The success of this progress, however, is in no way assured; we are now witnessing not the end of tyranny in the Middle East, but at best the beginning of the end.

Yet that end is not inevitable. Just as during the Cold War, powerful voices of appeasement continue to criticize and carp at the President’s efforts. Some of this criticism is, of course, partisan sour grapes on the part of some Democrats and their minions in the media, who so far have been proven wrong in all their dire prophecies, from the astronomical casualties they predicted at the start of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the warnings that elections in Iraq would fail in an orgy of insurgent violence. Faced with the President’s success, these critics have fallen back onto the same lame rationalizations used to discredit Ronald Reagan’s achievement of kicking the last props out from under Soviet tyranny.

Yes, they admit, elections are being held, Libya has abandoned its weapons of mass destruction, Lebanese are marching in the streets, the Palestinians have held their first legitimate election; and yes, the overthrow of tyrannies in Afghanistan and Iraq and the televised images of Iraqi and Afghan women voting have contributed to this movement, but it was all done “badly,” these critics complain—as though there were some easy, cost-free recipe for simultaneously overthrowing two murderous tyrannies and bringing democracy to peoples who had never known it. Or the critics assert that the forces of democracy were already in motion and so all these events would have taken place without the invasion of Iraq—a counterfactual impossible, of course, to ever test, and redolent of those who refused to give Reagan credit for the demise of the Soviet Union. Blinded by partisan Bushopobia, these critics simply cannot admit that they were wrong and that one of the great liberal Democratic Party ideals, the spread of democracy and freedom, has been advanced by a Republican.
Given the nature of democratic politics and the election cycle, these voices of partisan criticism represent a very real threat to the continuity necessary for this effort to succeed. Countering that criticism with facts and argument will be a necessary part of that effort. Equally dangerous is the self-doubt about liberal democracy and free-market economies that drives the global protest network, that congeries of starry-eyed environmentalists, old-line communists, half-wit movie stars, neo-hippie college students, and all those other Westerners who cocooned in luxury entertain fantasies of utopian perfection. Their impatience with the cost of protecting and advancing the ideals from which they benefit could easily spread, particularly given the setbacks sure to come in the years ahead, and such widespread discontent could return us again to the timidity and doubt that characterized the seventies.

True, nothing like the nuclear-armed Soviet military behemoth of those years exists to resist our efforts, yet in many ways Islamist terrorism is more difficult and insidious than was the Soviet Union, whose jaded ruling elite were motivated by material benefits and power, and so in the end could be swayed by a material calculus. The Islamists, on the other hand, are driven by a vision of ultimate spiritual reality, one so powerful that it justifies the slaughter of innocents. In this they resemble more the Japanese imperial militarists or the Nazis, true believers that only utter and complete destruction could disabuse of their beliefs. The battle against Islamist terrorism, then, will require even more commitment over a longer span of time than the struggle against Soviet communism did. Time will tell whether our democratic politics is compatible with such a lengthy commitment.

Now is not the time to celebrate, then. The struggle has just begun, and the years ahead will be marked by setbacks, mistakes, and at times bloody chaos. Whether we will succeed or not—that is, whether freedom wins out or not—is still an open question, as it has always been.

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