Freedom: It doesn’t mean what Bush thinks it means

Okay, this is simply a bit of a rant, but I can’t help myself.  Yesterday, Bush held a press conference with the French president.  On being asked about the situation in Iraq, and a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops, Bush responded:

I don’t — you know quagmire is an interesting word. If you lived in Iraq and had lived under a tyranny, you’d be saying: God, I love freedom, because that’s what’s happened.

And there are killers and radicals and murderers who kill the innocent to stop the advance of freedom. But freedom’s happening in Iraq. And we’re making progress.

When I read this, I immediately thought of the immortal words of Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Yes, Iraqis love their new freedom so much, that they’ve left the country in droves. (The linked article claims some 50K have returned in recent months, but that is disputed, and is a drop in the bucket compared to the 2.2 million that fled.)  True, one prominent Iraqi blogger is enjoying her freedom and relative peace — but that’s in Syria.

Bush just doesn’t seem to understand that ‘freedom’ requires more than the absence of a dictator.   I’m reminded of Fareed Zakaria’s 2003 book, The Future of Freedom.  Though there are many points to be debated in his assessment, one of the main arguments is that a democratic government cannot develop and thrive without first establishing a strong rule of law in a country.   To quote from the Publisher’s Weekly blurb,

While most Western governments are both democratic and liberal-i.e., characterized by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic rights-the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Zakaria praises countries like Singapore, Chile and Mexico for liberalizing their economies first and then their political systems, and compares them to other Third World countries “that proclaimed themselves democracies immediately after their independence, while they were poor and unstable, [but] became dictatorships within a decade.”

We have plenty of examples throughout the world of what works and doesn’t work when forming a democracy, and all the success stories involve a stable country with a strong economy which then develops a more democratic governance.   Most African ‘democracies’ have failed, in Zakaria’s view, because they treated elections as the one and only litmus test of a free government.  (This is a more reasonable view than that recently espoused by a famous Nobel winner.)

My way of looking at it is simply this: you cannot have a stable democratic government until a majority of the population perceive said government as being in their best interests.  In poor countries, the best way to become successful is to simply take over the country and control all its limited resources.  A successful government needs to give those people other avenues for success, and be strong enough to fight back against people who might want to overthrow it.  One needs to contrast this with Bush’s naive proclamation, “Let freedom reign!”, when Iraq was officially granted its sovereignty.  He couldn’t even get the phrase right.

I don’t know which possibility is more disturbing: that Bush is a dishonest politico who uses such talking points to push his agenda, or that he is a complete simpleton who doesn’t understand that democracies require more planning than just shouting, “Tag!  You’re democratic!”

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