Politics & Policy

Freedom For Iraq?

Iraqis' choice.

People can be given freedom, yet fail to take it. After the British created Iraq and liberated it from the Turks following World War I, they built a modern infrastructure–trains from Baghdad to Cairo, roads, hospitals, secular schools. And they imposed a regime of individual freedom (though not, immediately, independence) and democracy. In the 1920s and 30s, Iraq had a free press, genuine elections, innumerable political parties, and parliamentary government in a constitutional monarchy, all modeled on and imposed by Great Britain. As Bernard Lewis notes, “that freedom was always limited and sometimes suspended, but in spite of these limitations and suspensions, it was on the whole more extensive than anything they experienced before or after.” The British, after all, had no real interest in Baghdad except that it should not interfere with British domination of India or Suez. The first Iraqi oilfield was not developed until 1927, almost a decade after the policy of freedom was institutionalized. British control was limited to foreign policy, protection of minorities, and military assistance to the government to restrain tribal violence. Great Britain conferred full independence on Iraq and brought it into the League of Nations in 1932, only 14 years after ousting the Ottomans.

#ad#It all failed, the whole British Arabist idealistic project for Iraq. The whole package–individual liberty, parliamentary democracy, protection of minorities, a free economy–was rejected, marked “return to sender.” Iraq celebrated its new national independence a year later with a mass murder of Assyrian Christians. This made the general who commanded the massacre so popular as a hero of Iraqi unity and “independence” that he was able to take over the government in an easy coup three years later. Killing people whom the British had protected expressed independence. Iraq successfully destroyed the last of democracy and individual freedom by 1958, with no popular protest, 22 years after independence. Successive generations of Iraqi intellectuals have looked back in anger at the years of freedom and democracy under the “foreign yoke,” because the period undermined national strength and unity, writes Iraqi émigré Samir al-Khalil, in Republic of Fear (using a pseudonym). “Real” freedom in the Iraqi view meant, not individual freedom, but freedom of the community to exercise its will without restraint against minorities and to unite Arabs under a single will.

Iraqis aren’t alone in rejecting freedom. So did the Germans in 1933. We Americans, so steeped in a culture that celebrates personal freedom, fail to appreciate just how tough freedom is on people. Yes, the American brand of freedom creates unparalleled prosperity and innovation for the society as a whole. But freedom creates profound psychological burdens for people as individuals–the anxiety of making choices, the need to compose a meaningful life, the remorse that comes from making poor decisions and the responsibility for our own choices. Freedom bangs us up against the wall of our own limitations. Reflecting on the German people’s free and democratic choice of an authoritarian regime, Eric Fromm in Escape from Freedom argues that, as feudalism declined, the increased freedom brought people “an increased feeling of strength and at the same time an increased isolation, doubt, skepticism, and–resulting from all these–anxiety.” American culture has developed so many powerful socializing mechanisms to persuade people that the love of freedom is natural, that freedom is a blessing, that we fail to understand its emotional burdens. That we Americans assume a natural, strong, universal love of individual freedom shows how successful our socialization into the culture of freedom is.

As we try to institutionalize democracy and freedom in Iraq, we need to take a clear-eyed look at what makes them stick. Externally imposed institutions, like constitutions and systems of law, are necessary but not sufficient. What makes freedom put down roots is culture. The world is littered with tyrannies calling themselves democracies with paper constitutions like our own. As the great Judge Learned Hand put it, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it . . . While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no court, no law to save it.”

Our American culture of liberty arises from unique historical circumstances. Among them are the intellectual importance of Protestant individualism during our Founding period, the reemphasizing of the Declaration of Independence during the Civil War, and the romanticizing of the lone, brave, self-sufficient pioneer during the period of western expansion. None of these cultural elements is transferable to Iraq.

What can be transferred to Iraq are institutions that may go some distance in fostering a freedom-loving culture. Chief among these is the free-enterprise system, which creates economic incentives to protect private property, spurs individuality and creativity, and–of no small importance–fosters anti-authoritarian childrearing practices to adapt children to succeed in an entrepreneurial environment. Free enterprise would be greatly assisted by something like the Alaska Permanent Fund, so that a portion of the oil money goes from the oil companies to the people, instead of from the oil companies to the government. Not only is it absurd for the people to be so poor in one of the richest oil states in the world, but the money excessively concentrates power in the government. If more people have money, more will have an interest in personal freedom, in being left alone by the government, and people with money will furnish power centers independent of each other and government.

Federalism, as well as separation of powers in the national government, promotes freedom, by creating independent, competing centers of power. It is a natural fit with Iraq’s existing cultural divisions. Americans can support and encourage an Iraqi culture of democracy and freedom by supporting Iraqi artists and intellectuals who celebrate individual liberty grounded in indigenous cultural traditions. We did this successfully in Europe after World War II, such as by funding publications where freedom-minded authors unwelcome in the Communist magazines could publish. Iraq needs its own free, individualistic heroes. Much of our own socialization into a culture of freedom comes from the stories, music, movies, and heroic romances we grew up with, celebrating strong individuals doing the right thing, and doing their own thing.

Iraqis have a second chance for individual freedom and democracy now, even though an earlier generation threw it away. Losing a war, as Iraq has, affords a superb opportunity for cultural and political reform, because it removes and discredits old authorities. What the Iraqis can do, like other countries–Mongolia, Poland, the Czech Republic–that have recently made existential choices to be free, is to find and develop a usable culture that supports individual freedom. The creation of a culture that supports democracy and freedom is an intellectual infrastructure-construction project that, unlike producing water and electricity, only the Iraqis can perform. We can contribute, as we did with support for cultural projects protecting freedom in postwar Europe. And during the transition from the old regime to the new, we can provide some physical security for Iraqis seeking to institute a regime of freedom. But all we can do, really, is lower the barriers for the Iraqis to reform their own culture. They will have to find their own stories and heroes of individual freedom. Freedom is the Iraqis’ choice. No one can give a people freedom and make them keep the package. They have to take it.

Andrew Kleinfeld is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Judith Kleinfeld is professor of psychology and director of northern studies at the University of Alaska and author of Go For It: Find Your Own Frontier; among her research specialties is the psychology of freedom.

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