Freedom Fighters – April 3, 2011

With popular protests and insurrections now taking place all over the Arab world, people in this country wonder what America can do to help these “freedom fighters” against their oligarchic, despotic governments. I would suggest the answer is not much—not if these countries want to keep their freedom.

In my world view, you can’t give people anything of lasting value. In an emergency, when all other resources are swamped—as in the recent earthquakes in Japan and Haiti—aid in the form of food, medicine, building supplies, and money is always welcome. But these are short-term problems with short-term solutions. In the long-term, you can’t give a man or a people anything. You can only let him and them decide what is of value and necessity and then create benign circumstances for the person or the people to take what they need. This applies to education, personal meaning, personal space, a livelihood or an economic system, and freedom. You cannot give a slave freedom. You can only remove the condition of servitude and offer the possibility of freedom; the person must then reach for it and make personal decisions in order to become free.

Why do I believe this principle applies to the revolutions now starting or proceeding in the Middle East? Because I reflect on the American revolution and can see similarities with and differences from the Arabs’ situation today.

Consider what the transplanted English and Dutch on the North American continent did during our revolution.1 They formed associations, wrote out their principles, rallied the population, resisted the legitimate colonial government, and when the British sent an army to put them down, raised a Continental Army as well as local militias to fight them in the field. This war was a homegrown affair.

Yes, two years into the fighting, in 1777, the French Marquis Lafayette volunteered to join the Continental Army and became an officer under Washington. The following year the Prussian Baron von Steuben came to help with technical advice at Valley Forge. Five years into the fighting, in 1780, our new ally France sent 6,000 troops under Count de Rochambeau to Rhode Island, where the British blockaded them for almost a year. And finally a French fleet under the admiral Count de Grasse, along with 3,000 French troops and their cannon, joined General Washington and the Americans in the Battle of Yorktown, which effectively ended the war.

But throughout the eight years of war and maneuver, throughout the political and diplomatic work of building a government, the Americans were in charge of the campaign. They reached out and took their freedom. They had help and it was welcome, but no one handed them the result as a gift.

Compare that to Afghanistan and Iraq, where coalitions led by U.S. troops knocked out the tyrannical local government and military forces in a matter of weeks. We allowed Afghan and Iraqi freedom fighters to work alongside our troops as interpreters and liaison officers, and many were involved in the fighting. But the wars were planned, directed, and largely executed by foreigners. U.S. and international experts picked the new governments’ first leaders, wrote their laws, established their institutions, brought in security forces, and made every effort to shape the new countries. We of the West are slowly leaving Iraq to the Iraqis and their newfound democracy. In Afghanistan we still have a major hand in running the show.

Would that have worked in the American Revolution? Consider this thought experiment.

What if the French had early on decided to help the Americans, but only if things were done the French way? French troops would only fight under French officers in campaigns planned and battles chosen by the French government in Paris. The Americans and their Continental Congress and Continental Army might assist, and they certainly would be useful as interpreters, but this man Washington would have to step back and let the experts plan and execute the war. And that good French friend, Benjamin Franklin, must be brought in as the new American king or prime minister. How long would the North American people have kept their new government and their new freedom under these conditions?

Consider also that if the freedom fighters of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia had not pushed things to a head in the 1770s but had waited a couple of decades, things might have gone very differently.

If the American Revolution had broken out in the mid to late 1790s, and the French had taken a hand then, we might well have had something like a French takeover. Consider the aggressive revolutionaries in Paris, who wrangled endlessly over the implementation of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité and only stopped fighting among themselves when Napoleon rose to power and turned the revolution outward across Europe. Would they, or would Napoleon himself, have been content to supply financial or military aid but let Tom Paine, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, or their later counterparts, decide the course of American politics? Of course not. The experts at creating a revolution in France would have eagerly stepped in, if only to spite Britain, and guided the American experiment from the first day. We too might have had a guillotine erected in front of Independence Hall.

Our country has the shape it does today only because our main ally against the British was still a bloated monarchy and aristocracy, stuck in the social and political patterns of the ancien régime, with too many of its own problems to give us a thorough makeover.

None of this is meant to deny the protesters and freedom fighters of the Arab world our support. We should applaud and welcome any people who are tired of living under oppression and reach out for their freedom. We can, from a distance, give them advice and a bit of wisdom.2 But we cannot shape their revolution for them, because then it won’t be theirs.

None of this is meant to imply that everything will go well for the protesters and freedom fighters if we leave them alone. Unlike the patriots of North America, the Arab world has not had the benefit of an 18th century western enlightenment to guide their ideals and suggest their practices. Islam has its own set of ideals and practices. There is much in Islam that can be generous, fair, and courteous. Unfortunately, many of the people calling the tune these days have an aggressively fundamentalist streak and look back on a medieval worldview as the source of their power. Modern Islam doesn’t have to be like that.

To the extent that the freedom fighters of the Middle East promote a fundamentalist religious dictatorship in place of a secular military dictatorship—and to the extent that wiser, more tolerant heads in the general population don’t challenge this view—the region is headed for a long rite of passage. Revolutions and civil wars will ebb and flow until the various populations can reach a stability that accommodates the modern world. Much as the mullahs and fundamentalists would like to put the genies of technology, science, and secular inquiry back in their bottles, these forces are alive in the world and no people are immune to them.

I believe the Middle East is going to have twenty years, at best—and a hundred years, at worst—of strife while they try to join the modern world. They will not become little Americas or little Frances. They will learn to interpret their traditions and their religion in ways that work best for the majority of their people. My point is, they have to do it themselves. Anything else will be a shoe that just doesn’t fit.

1. For a general overview of the history, see the War of Independence timeline by Dr. Quintard Taylor, Jr. of the University of Washington.

2. Anything more than a warm welcome and a bit of advice is perilous. Remember that the mujahedeen whom we armed and advised in Afghanistan against the Soviets came back as the Taliban who supported the al Qaeda camps where 9/11 was prepared. The Middle East is fraught with endless possibilities for unintended consequences.