One of the more disquieting aspects of the Iraqi occupation is that the president’s final rationale for it is a cherished, though groundless, liberal belief about freedom. As we now know, the war was motivated less by any real evidence of Iraqi involvement with terrorism than by the neoconservatives’ belief that they could stabilize the Middle East by spreading freedom there. Their erroneous assumption was a relic from the liberal past: the doctrine that freedom is a natural part of the human condition.
A disastrously simple-minded argument followed from this: that because freedom is instinctively “written in the hearts” of all peoples, all that is required for its spontaneous flowering in a country that has known only tyranny is the forceful removal of the tyrant and his party.
Once President Bush was beguiled by this argument he began to sound like a late-blooming schoolboy who had just discovered John Locke, the 17th-century founder of liberalism. In his second inaugural speech, Mr. Bush declared “complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom ... because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul.” Later an Arab-American audience was told, “No matter what your faith, freedom is God’s gift to every person in every nation.” Another speech more explicitly laid out the neoconservative agenda: “We believe that freedom can advance and change lives in the greater Middle East.”
A basic flaw in the approach of the president and his neoliberal (a k a neoconservative) advisers was their failure to distinguish Western beliefs about freedom from those critical features of it that non-Western peoples were likely to embrace.
Those of us who cherish liberty hold as part of the rhetoric that it is “written in our heart,” an essential part of our humanity. It is among the first civic lessons that we teach our children. But such legitimizing rhetoric should not blind us to the fact that freedom is neither instinctive nor universally desired, and that most of the world’s peoples have found so little need to express it that their indigenous languages did not even have a word for it before Western contact. It is, instead, a distinctive product of Western civilization, crafted through the centuries from its contingent social and political struggles and secular reflections, as well as its religious doctrines and conflicts.
Acknowledging the Western social origins of freedom in no way implies that we abandon the effort to make it universal. We do so, however, not at the point of a gun but by persuasion — through diplomacy, intercultural conversation and public reason, encouraged, where necessary, with material incentives. From this can emerge a global regime wherein freedom is embraced as the best norm and practice for private life and government.
Just such a conversation has been under way since the first signing, in 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations. Several Asian nations — some, like China, rather cynically, and others, like Singapore, with more robust reasoning — have vigorously contested elements of the culture of freedom, especially its individualism, on the grounds that it is inconsistent with the more communal focus of their own cultures. The doctrine of freedom, however, with its own rich communitarian heritage, can easily disarm and even co-opt such arguments.
The good news is that freedom has been steadily carrying the day: nearly all nations now at least proclaim universal human rights as an ideal, though many are yet to put their constitutional commitments to practice. Freedom House’s data show the share of the world’s genuinely free countries increasing from 25 to 46 percent between 1975 and 2005.
The bad news is Iraq. Apart from the horrible toll in American and Iraqi lives, two disastrous consequences seem likely to follow from this debacle. One is the possibility that, by the time America extricates itself, most Iraqis and other Middle Easterners will have come to identify freedom with chaos, deprivation and national humiliation. The other is that most Americans will become so disgusted with foreign engagements that a new insularism will be forced on their leaders in which the last thing that voters would wish to hear is any talk about the global promotion of freedom, whatever “God’s gift” and the “longing of the soul.”
Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard, is a guest columnist.