Iraqis might not welcome imported democracy
By Steve Chapman
Originally published April 8, 2003
The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that. - Vice President Dick Cheney, on NBC's Meet the Press, March 16
CHICAGO - Maybe they will welcome us as liberators eventually. Maybe they're still being terrorized by Saddam Hussein's thugs. Maybe they're just afraid that we may not be able to get rid of him. Maybe they just need to get to know us to see they have nothing to fear.
But it's obvious the administration was overly optimistic about how we would be greeted. The bulletproof complacency exhibited by the vice president filtered all the way down to the Army sergeant who was surprised at the resistance from Iraqis in a battle last week: "From the reports I got, I thought they would all capitulate." Anyone looking for evidence that the Iraqi people were pleased by our arrival has had to look very hard.
It's easy to see why the administration expected something warmer. Why wouldn't Iraqis yearn for us to deliver them from Mr. Hussein's savage tyranny? Why wouldn't they want to take President Bush up on his promise to bring democracy to Iraq? "We will ensure that one brutal dictator is not replaced by another," he vowed in February. "All Iraqis must have a voice in the new government."
But of course they may not believe us. Even if they do, they are also susceptible to an even more potent force: nationalism. If anything trumps the concept that people have the right to control their rulers, it's the idea that nations have the right to decide their own fate.
Lots of countries shook off colonial rule only to plunge into home-grown autocracy, poverty, corruption and ethnic conflict - but few if any ever demanded to be re-colonized. One of the discoveries of recent decades is that many peoples would rather be ruled badly by one of their own than be governed well by foreigners. National self-determination, in most places, is more important than anything else.
It remains to be seen if Iraq is one of those places, or if the misery of living under Mr. Hussein is enough to make his people eager for deliverance, no matter what the source. The pro-war British magazine The Economist declares, "People can loathe a regime but loathe an invader more. Yet there are few signs that most Iraqis feel this way." True - and there are few signs that they don't.
How the Iraqis see us at this moment may ultimately be irrelevant. What matters more is how they will see us once the war is over. If our soldiers face extended resistance, they may have to use tactics that will antagonize the populace. If they have to take Baghdad by force, they may cause mass civilian casualties that will create enduring hostility.
We may have expected a welcome because of our success in Kosovo and Afghanistan. But in both places we managed to turn nationalism to our advantage - saving the independence-minded Kosovar Albanians from their Serbian oppressors and siding with one faction in an Afghan civil war against a regime tied to an alien intruder known as al-Qaida. This time, we have to hope we can overcome nationalist feeling.
Americans should have no trouble understanding that even Iraqis may prefer domestic oppression to imported liberty. The flag our forebears flew during the Revolution featured a coiled rattlesnake and a slogan. It didn't say: "Democracy." It said: "Don't Tread on Me."
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.
Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun
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