Commentary Magazine

Defending and Advancing Freedom

President Bush, in his September 2002 preface to The National Security Strategy of the United States, said that this country will act against emerging terrorist threats “before they are fully formed,” not because we seek unilateral advantage but because we wish “to create a balance of power that favors human freedom.”

I believe that these arguments are correct. To defeat possible Soviet aggression, we built up our military in order to counter an attack. To defeat radical terrorism, we must detect and intercept such plots before they are carried out; acting without armies or national governments, terrorists supply no advance warnings to their victims. This forward policy does not require us to become the world’s policeman. It requires only that we serve the interests of this country by means of good intelligence and counterterrorist acts.

Although the President’s policy clearly favors liberty and democracy, read literally it does not require us to change every unfree nation into a free one. Instead, it declares that we wish to create a “balance of power” that favors freedom. Our goal is to achieve, in the words of the National Strategy document, “the union of our values and our national interests.”

That union was threatened by Afghanistan and Iraq. In the former country, al Qaeda, active in and protected by the Taliban regime, had attacked us. As for Iraq, it did not attack us and may or may not have supported terrorist groups, but its behavior deeply threatened the balance of power in the Middle East. That threat was revealed by its invasions of Iran and Kuwait, by its bloody attacks on its own citizens, and by the financial support it gave to the families of terrorists. If it had been successful in Iran and Kuwait, Iraq would have been able to invade Saudi Arabia and create a monumental threat to democratic Israel.

Much of the debate about our invasion of Iraq involves rival claims about its possession of weapons of mass destruction. That argument is misplaced. The intelligence service of just about every Western nation believed that Iraq had such weapons, and Iraq’s deceitful response to Security Council resolutions suggested that it was trying to conceal them. There is evidence, little reported in the mainstream media, that an effort had been made to create the machinery for producing such weapons.

But even if we had known that Iraq had no WMD’s, it would have made little difference. At issue were the public behavior and manifest intentions of Saddam’s regime: brutality, invasions, the ambition to dominate all of the Middle East, and the death of up to a million Iraqis at the hands of the country’s army and intelligence services.

Maintaining a balance of power abroad has long been the goal of American and British foreign policy. It was at the root of England’s resistance to Napoleon and of America’s Monroe Doctrine; it led Britain to resist Russia during the Crimean war and Germany during both world wars; it helped make America a British ally even though Germany never attacked American territory in either 1914 or 1941. The English-speaking countries, though protected by channels and oceans from European struggles, have long understood that their interests would suffer if some aggressive power dominated Europe. Today, many of them (not only Britain and America but Australia as well) understand that their interests will suffer if some aggressive power dominates the Middle East.

President Bush, like Prime Ministers Tony Blair in England and John Howard in Australia, understands that no nation will aggressively dominate a region if its citizens can control its foreign policy through free and democratic elections. In general, democracies do not make war on one another.

It takes a long time to convert a nation accustomed to authoritarian rule into one that embraces democratic rule. A majority of the Democrats in the Senate opposed our effort to expel Iraq from Kuwait and to replace Saddam with a new government. Opinion polls suggest that Americans who support the Democratic party do not believe our 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified. Many influential leaders are unwilling to support the long, difficult effort to bring some modicum of freedom and democracy to other nations. “It was completely predictable,” according to John Deutch, a former director of Central Intelligence, “that a rapid transition to a stable and secure coalition government [in Iraq] would not occur.”

As for me, I think it “completely predictable” that critics of the war would imagine a “rapid transition” is ever possible. It has never been possible, or expected. It took many years to create a democratic regime in Germany and Japan, even though we had many more troops on the ground there than in Iraq. Deutch observes, rightly, that there was no credible alternative government or regime in exile waiting to take power in Iraq. But one did not exist in Germany or Japan, either. Under the Deutch doctrine, we should have abandoned Germany and Japan in 1945, just as he wishes us to abandon Iraq right now.

Reasonable criticisms can be made of American policy in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the latter, we disbanded the entire military instead of drawing on the better elements to support domestic security. The Coalition Provisional Authority had no clear plan, in part because the United States, despite having been involved in many nation-building efforts in the past, has retained no organizational basis for learning from and improving on our earlier efforts. By contrast, the British had a Colonial Office that managed to recruit and train a cadre of specialists in nation-building who managed to leave a country like India with a legacy of laws that helped it become, over time, the world’s largest democracy.

We are at war in Iraq, and Americans, I think, want us to win that struggle, not to desert it as John Deutch and Ted Kennedy prefer. The gains from our bloody and long struggle are clear: in Lebanon, Libya, among the Kurds and Shiites (and probably most of the Sunnis) in Iraq, and in Pakistan (which no longer supports the Taliban) and Syria (which has learned that overreaching is a bad idea). And about WMD’s: whether or not Iraq ever had them, we know that it does not have them now.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

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