Sunday, July 01, 2007

Freedom doesn't march

Tallahassee Democrat, Nov.19, 2006, page E5

By Adam Weinstein

More than a week has passed since the big shake-up on Capitol Hill and the news that Donald Rumsfeld is out as secretary of defense. The departure of "the Don" is getting rave reviews all around, especially here in the mostly blue city of Tallahassee.

But we still have a problem, folks. A big one.

Sure, it's a relief to most of us that Rumsfeld will be writing memoirs now instead of operations orders. But we should still be concerned that the ex-secretary's neoconservative vision - the one that stuck us with Iraq and fouled up our mission there - still lingers in the White House air.

The heart of that vision is a deep-seated belief that our home, the good ol' U.S. of A., has the gumption and the high duty to create democratic states in our image anyplace and anytime we feel like it.

It sounds like a great idea. And our president, the Great Decider, uses a snazzy catch-phrase to sum up our responsibility to export democracy at the tip of a spear.

"Freedom," he likes to say, "is on the march."

I spent a couple of years in the Navy. I marched a lot.

And do you know what I learned?

Freedom doesn't march. It breaks step. And if it ever keeps cadence at all, it does so to a decidedly different beat.

That's a fact that conservatives, of all people, should understand. Back in the days before they ran Capitol Hill and the White House, conservatives used to argue that an overreaching, oversized government was far more dangerous than the evils it sought to cure. Conservatives used to trash communists for precisely that: using government power, and force, to engineer a new society, to change human nature into something it wasn't.

Soviet communists used to talk all the time about "exporting the revolution abroad." But their revolution never sat pretty with other countries. Not in Eastern Europe, not in the Baltic, not in Central and South Asia. Nope, the Russians learned the hard way: You don't get too far in this world by trying to impose your version of law and order on others. And you surely don't get much mileage out of calling that freedom or democracy.

Conservatives still understand that, domestically. Red-state residents are always wary of government efforts to take their guns or money, to impose limits on their freedom of speech or movement. The image of "jack-booted FBI thugs" is still enough to make most rural Americans rightly shudder.

So, if Middle America isn't ready to greet an occupying army with roses and cheers, how silly is it for us to expect such a reaction from citizens of a foreign country we just bombed into the Middle Ages?

Oh, sure, sometimes an occupation works, as in Germany and Japan after World War II. Sometimes it just has to work, as it does in Afghanistan, the terrorists' former playground. But we have a lot to offer the average Afghan. Like indoor plumbing. Paved roads. Formal education. The promise that people won't get stoned for listening to music or flying kites. Besides that, we had the support of 5 billion souls around the world who were united in horror after 9/11 and agreed that its perpetrators had to be rooted out.

Contrast this with Iraq, where a majority of the world's - and now U.S. - citizens don't see a big threat. Where there already was an infrastructure, and where we struggle to restore services that our bombs destroyed and that insurgents now manage to keep broken. Where we impose curfews, mass arrests and house-to-house searches. Where our troops accomplish Herculean tasks from day to day, yet see their accomplishments eroded from week to week.

That's what happens when you try to make freedom march.

So you'll forgive me for being guarded in my optimism. My hope is that we just dumped the Toby Keith approach to government ("It's going to be hell/ When you hear Mother Freedom/ Start ringing her bell") for the Kenny Rogers approach ("Know when to hold 'em/ Know when to fold 'em"). Maybe the days of imposing Texas justice on the Mideast really are waning, and we'll be a little more selective about where our nation draws its lines in the sand.

Maybe. But only time will tell.

Adam Weinstein, a copy editor at the Tallahassee Democrat, is a graduate student in international affairs at Florida State University.

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