Bush's Napoleonic Folly
Liberty as Tyranny
For a democracy to conduct a brutal military occupation against another country in the name of liberty seems, on the face of it, too contradictory to elicit more than hoots of derision at the hypocrisy of it all. Yet, the militant republic, ready to launch aggressive war in the name of "democracy," is everywhere in modern history, despite the myth that democracies do not typically wage wars of aggression. Ironically, some absolutist regimes, like those of modern Iran, were remarkably peaceable, if left alone by their neighbors. In contrast, republican France invaded Belgium, Holland, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Egypt in its first decade (though it went on the offensive in part in response to Austrian and Prussian moves to invade France). The United States attacked Mexico, the Seminoles and other Native polities, Hawaii, the Spanish Empire, the Philippines, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic in just the seven-plus decades from 1845 to the eve of the U.S. entry into World War I.
Freedom and authoritarianism are nowadays taken to be stark antonyms, the provinces of heroes and monsters. Those closer to the birth of modern republics were comforted by no such moral clarity. In Danton's Death, the young Romantic playwright Georg Büchner depicted the radical French revolutionary and proponent of executing enemies of the Republic, Maximilien Robespierre, whipping up a Parisian crowd with the phrase, "The revolutionary regime is the despotism of liberty against tyranny." And nowhere has liberty proved more oppressive than when deployed against a dictatorship abroad; for, as Büchner also had that famed "incorruptible" devotee of state terror observe, "In a Republic only republicans are citizens; Royalists and foreigners are enemies."
That sunlit May afternoon on the USS Abraham Lincoln, President Bush seconded Büchner's Robespierre. "Because of you," he exhorted the listening sailors of an aircraft carrier whose planes had just dropped 1.6 million pounds of ordnance on Iraq, "our nation is more secure. Because of you, the tyrant has fallen, and Iraq is free."
Security for the republic had already proved ample justification to launch a war the previous March, even though Iraq was a poor, weak, ramshackle Third World country, debilitated by a decade of sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the United States, without so much as potable drinking water or an air force. Similarly, the Mamluks of Egypt--despite the sky-high taxes and bribes they demanded of some French merchants--hardly constituted a threat to French security.
The overthrow of a tyrannical regime and the liberation of an oppressed people were constant refrains in the shipboard addresses of both the general and the president, who felt that the liberated owed them a debt of gratitude. Bonaparte lamented that the beys "tyrannize over the unfortunate inhabitants of the Nile"; or, as one of his officers, Captain Horace Say, opined, "The people of Egypt were most wretched. How will they not cherish the liberty we are bringing them?" Similarly, Bush insisted, "Men and women in every culture need liberty like they need food and water and air. Everywhere that freedom arrives, humanity rejoices; and everywhere that freedom stirs, let tyrants fear."
Not surprisingly, expectations that the newly conquered would exhibit gratitude to their foreign occupiers cropped up repeatedly in the dispatches and letters of men on the spot who advocated a colonial forward policy. President Bush put this dramatically in 2007, long after matters had not proceeded as expected: "We liberated that country from a tyrant. I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude. That's the problem here in America: They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq."
Liberty in this two-century old rhetorical tradition, moreover, was more than just a matter of rights and the rule of law. Proponents of various forms of liberal imperialism saw tyranny as a source of poverty, since arbitrary rulers could just usurp property at will and so make economic activity risky, as well as opening the public to crushing and arbitrary taxes that held back commerce. The French quartermaster Francois Bernoyer wrote of the Egyptian peasantry: "Their dwellings are adobe huts, which prosperity, the daughter of liberty, will now allow them to abandon." Bush took up the same theme on the Abraham Lincoln: "Where freedom takes hold, hatred gives way to hope. When freedom takes hold, men and women turn to the peaceful pursuit of a better life."