The piece "Who Are Americans To Think That Freedom Is Theirs To Spread" by Michael Ignatieff in this week’s New York Times Magazine demands comment. The article, from title to tag, presents a series of conclusions disguised as questions that are not supported by the historical record. The result is a presentation of U.S. foreign policy that is misleading at best and dangeous at worst.
"America’s long-held desire to export liberty and democracy is called hubristic, messianic, imperialistic and worse. But try imagining a world without it," the Harvard professor begins. What long-held desire to export liberty and democracy? Our first war, against the Barbary pirates, was to protect our merchants. The north launched the Civil War to preserve the union; freedom for the slaves was an expedient adopted after the battle started. WWII began when a struggle with Japan for economic influence in the Pacific exploded into war.
"’To some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,’ [Jefferson] wrote, the American form of republican self-government would become every nation’s birthright," Ignatieff continues. Fine sentiments, but Jefferson did not suggest this change would come at the point of a U.S. Marine’s musket.
"Until George W. Bush, no American president — not even Franklin Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson — actually risked his presidency on the premise that Jefferson might be right," Ignatieff continues. Rubbish. Bush Jr.’s claims that the Iraq war is being fought for freedom are as empty as his arguments it was launched to protect us from WMD’s or the 9/11 hijackers. This war is being fought for oil: that is what makes Iraq different from the many other unfree countries of the world we have not invaded, for example Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and North Korea.
"The charge that promoting democracy is imperialism by another name is baffling to many Americans. How can it be imperialist to help people throw off the shackles of tyranny?" Easily answered: we are promoting freedom only as an incidental goal. In Iraq, for example, the primary objective is a government that will support the presence of U.S. oil interests and permanent military bases. Rumsfeld has explicitly stated a fundamentalist Muslim government, which presumably would object to such a result, will never be elected. In Uzbekistan, Karimov of the Andijan massacre is our ally; in Pakistan, unelected Musharraf; in Saudi Arabia, U.S. troops stand in harm’s way for a hereditary monarchy.
"The contemporary liberal attitude toward the promotion of democratic freedom — we like what we have, but we have no right to promote it to others — sounds to many conservative Americans like complacent and timorous relativism, timorous because it won’t lift a finger to help those who want an escape from tyranny, relativist because it seems to have abandoned the idea that all people do want to be free." A final false proposition. The objective for this liberal is not promoting democratic freedom abroad per se, but promoting the long-term well-being of the American people. Conflating the latter with the former ignores our history, makes it more difficult to hold our leaders to account for the practical results of their policies, and confuses voters who often are not well informed about our foreign policies. Ignatieff should get real.