Liberation or Libation?


I figured it would happen sooner or later.

Having written several columns questioning the notion that the current war in Iraq is about “liberation” of that nation’s people, it was only a matter of time before I received an email like the one this morning.

“Well smartass,” it began, indicating the level of discourse so common among some who support this war. “I guess you and all your leftist buddies were wrong. Picture after picture is coming out of Iraq showing how happy the people are to be freed by our soldiers. They are giving the ‘thumbs up’ sign, even waving small American flags, smiling and cheering. If it were up to people like you, they would have to suffer for God knows how long under Saddam.”

Well, actually, if it were up to people “like me,” the United States would never have armed and supported Saddam in the first place.

If it were up to “people like me,” the CIA wouldn’t have backed Saddam beginning in the 1960’s, encouraging him and the Ba’ath Party to assassinate the Iraqi President and usher in three decades of vicious rule.

If it were up to “people like me,” the U.S. would never have approved, from 1985-1990, some 750 export licenses worth 1.5 billion dollars to companies seeking to sell biological and chemical agents and equipment with military application to Iraq.

But of course, it wasn’t up to people like me. It was up to people like George Bush the First, and Donald Rumsfeld in his previous incarnation as an apologist for Saddam and his penchant for gassing other brown-skinned folks.

But putting all that aside, since history rarely means much to those like my email detractor, whose historical memory has been programmed in this culture to extend no further back than last night’s eleven o’clock news, let us return to the gist of his charge, that we are creating happy Iraqis in the wake of our march to Baghdad.

First, let us grant for the sake of argument that there will be many Iraqis glad to see Saddam go. Of course this is true. Indeed, perhaps the vast majority will feel this way. Why wouldn’t they? He has been a despotic and cruel tyrant, and was such during the entire time that we stood by him–a small detail about which the rest of the Muslim world is aware, despite the fact that most Americans apparently aren’t.

So of course many Iraqis will be glad to have this regime gone, but that doesn’t mean that they will be glad about the way it is being done, or what may come after. This is especially true if it involves a long U.S. occupation, the installation of an unpopular puppet government, and the ultimate abandoning of the nation, as we have already done in Afghanistan, where the White House proposes to spend zero dollars this year on rebuilding the infrastructure that we have helped destroy since October 2001.

Secondly, let us reflect for a minute on the accuracy of the photos in which my new pen pal seems to place so much stock. After all, with journalists heavily controlled by the military as per the “embedding” concept, and with stories and photos being regularly vetted first by CentCom before they are allowed to be seen, does it really surprise anyone that we wouldn’t be seeing photos of angry Iraqis?

And just where does my friend think those Iraqis got American flags anyway? I mean, does anyone really believe that such flags were a briskly selling item in pre-invasion Iraq, or is it more likely that they have been given those items by American troops, who then jumped back so the photographers could get a better shot?

The fact is, people tend to like cameras, especially when they are poor and haven’t seen many before. Go to the poorest, most oppressed places on Earth and film the inhabitants or take their picture, and you will find them smiling. It’s second nature, not joy at being liberated. I have a picture of my family from the 1850’s and one of their slaves is smiling too. So what? Are we to then assume that he was enjoying his bondage? (And as a side note, how much more of a smile might he have had if his father had slit the throats of my entire clan as they slept? Just a thought, and one which American “liberators” might wish to consider.)

It was just a week ago that reporters were noting the smiling faces of Iraqi youth as “coalition” forces rolled by, only to note that as soon as the troops were out of sight, they would curse their presence and pledge allegiance to Saddam, even when there were no Ba’ath officials around to enforce such loyalty.

And in my morning newspaper today, the deception about Iraqi attitudes was blatant. On page one, there was a heart-warming photo of crowds in Najaf greeting an American solider, and beneath the picture an article entitled “Cheers from Iraqis greet U.S.” Yet on page six, in an article with the innocuous title, “Baghdad residents torn with emotion,” one finds one after another comment by Iraqis condemning the war on their nation, and the Hussein regime, such as “What does Bush want from us? Saddam is our choice, and even if we have to survive just on bread, we still want him.”

Or alternately, “of course people are sad. They are targeting everything. Not just government buildings.”

Or, “Even if our President is the biggest tyrant in the world as they say, we would not want to replace him.”

Not to say that these voices are necessarily representative of Iraqi opinion either, but surely they give the lie to the one-dimensional propaganda about happy Iraqis and their love for our G.I.’s Joe.

Perhaps most importantly, if war supporters are now going to justify this invasion on the grounds of liberating the Iraqis–having apparently given up the weapons of mass destruction argument since none have been found or used by Iraq in this war–then one wonders why limit the rationale to this one nation?

If the U.S. is obligated to liberate the oppressed by force, there is surely no reason to stop with Iraq. Assuming that oppressed peoples are equal wherever they may be, then we should surely seek to overthrow the governments of Saudi Arabia (whose human rights record is every bit as bad as Saddam’s), Turkey (whose treatment of the Kurds has been considerably worse than Saddam’s), Columbia (whose scorched earth tactics and death squads are perhaps unparalleled right now anywhere on Earth), and Israel, whose treatment of Palestinians continues to represent a form of not-so-subtle ethnic cleansing.

But of course we won’t invade any of those places to free the persons oppressed by the respective governments, and the reason is obvious: because we are allied with those nations, and implicated in the oppression of the peoples mentioned. They can torture, imprison, rape, behead in public, crush with tanks, and otherwise slaughter as many of these as they choose and nothing will happen to them. Because we are not about liberation. It is simply an excuse we use to help us sleep better at night, and because we think the people of the world are so stupid as to actually believe it.

Truth be told it takes a profound contempt for Iraqis to believe that they will, by and large view us as liberators. It takes a fundamental belief in the intellectual inferiority and simple-mindedness of such folks to expect them to believe this kind of thing.

They know, after all, that we have been behind the dictator we now seek to depose. They know that without U.S. support Saddam could never have taken power, retained power, or tortured and killed the tens of thousands that he’s killed. Likewise, they know that without U.S.-sanctions hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens would still be alive as well.

And let us not forget that even with the support of the Iraqi people, U.S. actions have planted the seeds of further terrorism, as millions throughout the Middle East seek revenge for what they perceive as an American power grab and anti-Arab, anti-Muslim crusade.

After all, we thought all was well after our “liberation” of Kuwait in 1991, too. Kuwaitis were certainly happy, I suppose. But a certain Saudi national was not. He saw the stationing of U.S troops in his nation as an affront to his religion; an unholy incursion onto Muslim land. He also saw the human costs of the war that “liberated” Kuwait as an unacceptable massacre, and the sanctions that came after it as de facto genocide. And at least nineteen others agreed with him.

Such is the inertia created by this kind of liberation.

Sleep well.

Tim Wise is an activist, writer and lecturer based in Nashville, Tennessee.