USS Clueless - Encouraging dissent

Stardate 20031019.1750

(On Screen): Zeyad lives in Baghdad and has started a blog called Healing Iraq. In one particular post he talks about a fanatic Shi'ite cleric named Muqtada Al-Sadr, who is increasingly openly defying the American occupation, with his own uniformed military force which is trying to take control of an area which Zeyad describes as Baghdad's equivalent of Harlem. (Though from the sound of it, it's actually a lot worse.)

He says that Al-Sadr speaks Arabic with an Iranian accent, and Al-Sadr has clearly been advocating establishment of a Khomeini-style Islamic Republic in Iraq. Zeyad ends his post this way:

I just need someone to tell me why the Americans aren't doing anything about this guy? I understand that they are trying to avoid religious figures but he is dangerous and needs to be shut up, so that no one in the new Iraq would be giving us this bullsh*t again. No one wants to replace a dictatorial secular government with a tyrannical religious one, with Iranian-like Mullahs ruling us and telling us how to live so Allah would be proud of us.

Are you listening Mr. Bremer?

I've seen reports which suggest that they may well be making plans to deal with Al-Sadr, but I can also explain why that hasn't happened yet. It's because we're playing a long game, and sometimes actions which seem to help in the short run harm you in the long run.

The most important reason why he's been ignored so far is that we are trying to encourage dissent. For decades in Iraq, it was extraordinarily hazardous to criticize the government in any way, even in private. You could never truly be sure who you could trust, and if you said the wrong things you might get a one-way ticket to the neighborhood abattoir for yourself or for those you loved.

The long game we're playing is to try to infect Iraqis with the idea of freedom, and through them the rest of the Arabs and then out into the rest of the Islamic world. There's signs that it's working, too; I wrote about that here. But it's a slow process, and especially in the early stages it's very fragile. I believe that the urge to be free is present in all of us, but it can be blunted by fear.

Freedom of thought and freedom of speech are the foundation on which all other exercise of freedom is based. But for the old people of Iraq there's only a distant and blurred memory of any such thing; for the young it's something they've never known. It's something you have to practice, even something you have to learn how to do. It's a complicated thing, something you have to learn to understand. And it's a risk.

"Free speech" doesn't mean the right to speak. In Saddam's Iraq, anyone who wanted to could publicly proclaim his love for Saddam and support for the Baathists, but there was no free speech. The true measure of free speech is the extent to which people can say things which are disliked by the government, or others powers-that-be such as religious authorities, or even the vast majority of fellow citizens.

Iraqis have every reason to be suspicious. The Americans have shown up and kicked Saddam out, and that part is fine with everyone except those who were the beneficiaries of Saddam's rule (and who are now primarily involved in resisting us). But when the Americans said they believed in freedom for Iraqis, were they hypocritical? Was free speech an illusion, something the Americans gave lip-service to but didn't actually tolerate? History is full of "liberators" who enslaved those they "liberated". And our claims about free speech could be a trap, a way of enticing dissenters to reveal themselves so they can be rounded up.

In fact it's not just lip-service; and it's critical that Iraqis start to believe that. We need them to believe that it's real, so that they'll start practicing it, come to value it, and be willing to defend it.

There is a red-line, a point we won't permit anyone to cross. There's a difference between dissent and armed resistance. As long as Al-Sadr sat in his mosque and issued fatwahs, and condemned the US and demanded we leave, it was important for us to ignore him. More moderate Iraqis, who would never support Al-Sadr, saw that we didn't move against him as long as all he did was to talk, and it was important that they see that.

Now that he's organizing his own army and advocating secession and violent revolution, he has crossed that red line, and I think that they will move against him. But in the long game, if we'd arrested him when he first started publicly criticizing us, it would have cost us too much.

Probably it would have caused rioting in the area he's made his stronghold, but that wasn't the biggest concern. In a different post, Zeyad himself makes the comment that the people of Iraq have learned to never believe anything that the government says.

In present day Iraq, rumours work better than official statements, people for some reason always believe the rumour and think that any official statement is just a cover up or some sort of conspiracy to fool them. Iraqis never trust their governments, and they don't believe what they say due to obvious reasons from their late history. The American adminstration in Iraq should know that by heart and they should act accordingly to gain the peoples trust.

They do, and they are. But establishing credibility is also part of the long game. The only way to do it is to say what you're going to do, and then to do what you said you would. Initially the announcements will be disbelieved, but if you keep doing what you say you will do, eventually more and more people will begin to believe you. Credibility has to be earned, and we're trying to earn it. But it doesn't take much to squander that credibility.

Tolerating extremists like Al-Sadr is part of our long game of proving our commitment to free speech for Iraqis. We said we wanted Iraqis to be free, and part of that is toleration of dissent. When we ignore even extremists such as Al-Sadr, it's part of the process of proving that our word is good.

Al-Sadr and others like him are the canary in the free speech coal mine. As long as someone like Al-Sadr is tolerated, and permitted to spout his poison unmolested, others will feel secure.

Part of why we encourage public dissent is to encourage public support. Under Saddam, anyone could proclaim their support, but no one else would believe them even if it was true. When dissent is suppressed, support has no credibility. It is only when dissent is tolerated that one can publicly support the government and be believed.

The Iraqi people were not able to free themselves without outside help. Revolution was impossible, as they proved in 1991. It took outside force remove Saddam, which we just supplied. Too late, perhaps; I am ashamed that we did not actively support the 1991 revolution. But it's better late than never.

We have given the people of Iraq the opportunity to be free, but they must seize it and they must hold onto it. We are giving them a chance for freedom, but only they can keep their freedom.

There's a deep undercurrent of passivity in many Iraqis. Good things may happen to them, bad things may happen to them, but too many believe they can't influence their fate, and sit and wait for what someone else does. That's a natural consequence of living in the kind of brutal police state we just removed, but it's also something which has to change. If Iraqis welcome freedom but expect us to continue defending it forever, then this experiment will fail. If they think that freedom is something America gave them, then they haven't become free.

So another good reason for letting Al-Sadr alone is so that other Iraqis can hear what he says, and oppose it. They need to learn not only that they can oppose us, but that they can oppose each other. Al-Sadr isn't the first to preach submission and slavery and he won't be the last. We could stop him, and the next one like him, and the next. But eventually that's something that the Iraqi people will have to do for themselves, so it's better for them to start getting practice now.

Instead of asking why the Americans don't do something about Al-Sadr, we need Iraqis to start thinking, "What are we going to do about him?" But they also need to learn what kinds of things they should do, for if they deal with him and others like him the wrong way, it will destroy their liberty just as surely as he wants to destroy it.

The one thing that they must not do is to shut him up. We tolerate and encourage dissent in Iraq, and the Iraqis must learn that they can argue with one another but that they must also tolerate others arguing with them. They must ask what they should do about Al-Sadr rather than asking why we're not doing something about him, and they must learn that the solution is to argue against him, publicly and privately, so that he never picks up enough influence to take over.

If liberal democracy is to succeed in Iraq, then Iraqis must believe that they are free, must value that freedom, and must be willing to defend it even at the risk of their own lives. But that can only be effective when it's widespread. If one man stands alone against tyranny and gets shot and killed, nothing changes. If a million men stand up to tyranny, tyranny will be defeated even if a lot of them get shot and killed.

But if those million men are not willing to do so, and instead wait for someone else to defend them, then they will lose their freedom, and they will deserve to. It has been said that "Every country has the government it deserves." (It is ironic that it was Joseph Marie de Maistre, a Frenchman, who wrote that in 1811 during the reign of Napoleon.)

We Americans are willing to make that sacrifice. Americans fought to free themselves from British rule, and others have made that sacrifice again and again since then, in wars and in peacetime, at home and abroad. That's why we are still free. Our own Thomas Jefferson said, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

But that's not the only level at which we defend our freedom. It's an ongoing struggle. It's a war you can lose, but never permanently win. Each day that you win, your prize is the chance to defend your freedom again the next day. If you become complacent or apathetic, then you will lose it. And you can defeat yourself.

You cannot defend freedom by taking it away from others. If you believe in freedom, you are forced to defend the freedom of those you despise, and defend their right to publicly deliver a message you hate. Suppression of dissent is tyranny, no matter who is doing the suppressing. Zeyad says, No one wants to replace a dictatorial secular government with a tyrannical religious one, but if Iraqis use force to suppress advocates of religious tyranny, they will create another secular tyranny.

If Zeyad believes that Iraqis must be free, then he must defend the right of Al-Sadr to advocate slavery. The best defense against Al-Sadr's message, and others like it domestically, is a majority of Iraqis who listen to what Al-Sadr says, and who reject it utterly, and who publicly argue against it. In the long run it's the only defense you can rely on, and it's the only one you need.

In America we have our extremists, too; we have our Al-Sadrs who preach slavery. We always have. But they never had any chance of making us slaves, and never will as long as enough of us are alert and actively willing to oppose them, through our own free speech, and in the ballot box, and in the final resort by fighting against them but only if they resort to arms. As long as they confine themselves to speaking, we oppose them that way. We defeat them and marginalize them by arguing more effectively than they do. And we prove our dedication to freedom by permitting them to deliver their message. We do not need to silence them because they are no threat to us, and because the act of suppressing them would be a threat to us all.

During the French Revolution, those who led France during the Terror, and who sent thousands to the guillotine, all themselves ended beneath its blade. Those who suppress others will find themselves eventually being suppressed. Censorship and repressions are temptations which must at all costs be resisted. Those who start using them always have good intentions, but good intentions pave the road to Hell.

Al-Sadr can preach slavery, but only the Iraqi people can make themselves slaves. The battleground is their hearts and minds, and if they refuse to become slaves, Al-Sadr will never prevail. There will be no danger in letting him preach, as long as that's all he does.

The people of Iraq could not remove Saddam. They needed us to do that. We are helping the Iraqis rebuild their society, and we will help defend them against hostile neighbors who wish to enslave them.

But we haven't freed them. We've only given them an opportunity to be free. If they remain slaves in their hearts, or if they deeply believe in tyranny and only argue about who gets to be the tyrant, then there's nothing we can do for them.

In the long run only the Iraqis can free themselves. That is a battle each of them must fight inside their own skulls, and it is the most important battle of this war. It is one we must win, and that's the long game we're playing.

Update: John Weidner comments.

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