No Sympathy for the Devil

by on September 11th, 2004

In a little less than two months, Americans will go to the polls and choose the man who will serve as their president for the next four years. Much like Bill Clinton before him (and perhaps moreso, the “Vast Right Wing Conspiracy” notwithstanding), George W. Bush has been a polarizing force for many Americans, and this election has been full of heated rhetoric from both the right and the left. A great deal of this rancor and animosity stems from the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq last year: a preemptive strike many regarded as unjustified and perhaps illegitimate, and certainly a decision roundly condemned in many countries around the world.

I fully understand those who wonder whether it is America’s role to serve as the world’s policeman, or who question whether this country should really be engaged in “nation-building” around the world. I also recognize the validity of those voices who questioned the basis for invasion: while I (like most people and seemingly every intelligence service around the world) accepted the idea that Saddam had “weapons of mass destruction” (ah, how I have grown to despise that phrase) in his possession, I never really thought that was an acceptable pretext for invasion. It just never seemed as though Iraq posed a truly significant military threat to America.

Instead, the only reason that seemed to justify the invasion (if any reason did) was the same one that brought many left-leaning interventionists to Bush’s side: the idea that from a humanitarian viewpoint, U.S. intervention in Iraq might be appropriate in order to free Iraq from the control of a brutal dictator and remove the specter of future mass graves. And even there, while I had no doubt that the Middle East was “capable” of democracy (unlike some who adopted the peculiar notion that Iraqis, like small children, were actually unable to govern themselves), I was uncertain that democracy and self-rule could be imposed on Iraq from the “top-down.”

Ultimately, only history will record how well America performed the role it took in freeing Iraq from Saddam’s cruel grip. In the present, as the history is being made, we can certainly debate the merits of the intelligence that supported the invasion, the post-war planning (or lack thereof), and a whole host of other policy decisions made by the Bush administration. Perhaps that will mean a “change at the top,” as they say, and if so that’s fair enough. But as the election nears and the tempers rise, I must admit that I am greatly troubled when I see people make statements like one I saw recently by Jan Herman, a columnist who suggested that the invasion of Iraq had been a “catastrophe” for the Middle East.

To my way of thinking, this statement suggests that Iraq – and the Middle East – would have been better off with Saddam still in power. In essence, it offers up the idea that a dictator is better than chaos, that well, Saddam was a sadistic bastard but at least he kept the place stable and the trains running on time, so we should have just ignored him and left him to continue torturing and killing his people. It constantly boggles my mind that people living in free, democratic societies are seemingly willing to consign others to live under tyranny. Frequently those on the ostensible left will offer statements about how “happy” or “content” the people are in totalitarian states (see the pandering to Fidel Castro by Oliver Stone, among others, as an example of this), and yet they fail to recognize that people are often adaptable. We can survive and even smile despite the most oppressive of circumstances. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t prefer an alternative, if we truly understood that one existed or how it worked.

To my way of thinking at least, one of the most precious commodities we possess is the principle of self-rule: the idea that a people are entitled to choose their leaders through elections rather than through military might. I am always reminded of our “Founding Fathers,” whose “no taxation without representation” was a rallying cry for the notion that the people should have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

No, those Dead White Men were not perfect either, but regardless of its flaws a representative or democratic government remains the best way to vocalize the collective will of “the people” rather than “the few, or the one.” Even the wanton excesses of the French Revolution cannot mask the very real suffering that caused a nation to rise up and reject the idea of a king who ruled by “divine right.” I cannot fathom living under the arbitrary rule of a dictator who reigns through fear, terror, and the prospect that I too might end up in an unmarked grave someday, simply for speaking my mind in opposition to those who “rule” over me.

No matter who ends up in the Oval Office in November, I think it is truly important that we as Americans remember this telling fact about how important the simple exercise of the “right to vote” really is: in the last election in Iraq before the invasion, Saddam Hussein received 100 percent of the eligible vote.

The government offered no explanation for how it tabulated paper ballots from remote regions across the country of 22 million people overnight.

The referendum was a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote on keeping Saddam in power another seven years.

All 11,445,638 eligible voters cast ballots, Ibrahim said. Iraqi officials said popular outrage at American threats to Saddam’s regime made the turnout and percentage even higher than the last vote, in 1995, when Saddam received a 99.96 “yes” vote.

Of course, there was no opposition, and the voters well knew that those who had voted against Hussein in the past had often met with brutal punishment. Like all dictators, Saddam wanted the illusion of popular support but wasn’t willing to actually run the risk of contested, honest elections. The only thing that kept him in power was his military control of the country.

Many know the story in the book of Exodus about how Moses led his people out of Egypt (yes, that’s the one with the ten plagues and the burning bush). But what many don’t know is what else the narrative records: that after they’d crossed the Red Sea, after they’d been delivered by the power of God on numerous occasions, the people grew contentious and actually suggested that things would have been better back in Egypt:

In the desert the whole community complained about Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only the LORD had let us die in Egypt! There we sat by our pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted! You brought us out into this desert to let us all starve to death!” [Exodus 16:2-3]

That’s right: there came a moment in the midst of their uncertainty when fear drove them to believe that slavery was better than freedom, that it would have been better to return to their masters in Egypt rather than forge a new existence for themselves. The current chaos in Iraq is clearly cause for concern, and there are many justifiable fears about what the future may hold. We can certainly look at Iraq and wonder whether direct military intervention is a satisfactory method of achieving a legitimate humanitarian purpose: namely, the freedom of a people to exercise the right to rule themselves.

Nonetheless, I personally don’t believe that these concerns should cause us to have sympathy for dictators and tyrants, or to suggest that people were somehow “better off” beneath the iron fist of an absolute ruler like Saddam. Chaos is unpleasant and change is always painful, no matter how it is achieved. The prospect of freedom and the hope of a democratic future should sustain us through the chaos, and a dictator is never an acceptable alternative, even in the face of turmoil.

Bill Wallo