Thursday, September 21, 2006

Iraq -- doomed from the start?

There's a debate raging through the blogosphere whether our intervention in Iraq was doomed from the start (see Matthew Yglesias here) or whether the deterioration is a result of Bush's particular brand of incompetence (see Ravin Chandrasekan here).

I'm sad to say I'm slowly tilting toward the "doomed from the start" position, largely because of an essay I read by John Stuart Mill, written in 1859, titled "A few words on non-intervention." I haven't been able to find a copy online, so I'll rely instead on this summary by Prof. Joe Miller:

As a number of posts have already mentioned, Mill’s Harm Principle famously prohibits the state from interfering with self-regarding actions. Less well known is that in 1859 (the year which saw the publication of On Liberty), Mill also wrote a short essay entitled “A Few Words on Non-Intervention.” There Mill applies the Harm Principle to international relations, arguing that the citizens of a nation cannot be forced to be free, and that liberty can flourish only where people “are willing to brave labour and danger for their liberation.” Mill argues that only those who are capable of seizing liberty for themselves are ready for free institutions; history has shown that those who are given freedom by outsiders rarely keep that freedom for long. Thus, for Mill, intervention in the internal affairs of despotic nations is almost always prohibited.

"Liberty can flourish only where people are willing to brave labour and danger for their liberation." I wish I had read this essay in 2002, because I assumed (just as our vice-president assumed) that the Iraqi people would rejoice in the overthrow of Saddam, and would rush to embrace democracy and freedom. Sadly, every day that passes confirms the wisdom of Mill -- having braved neither labour nor danger to liberate themselves from Saddam, the people of Iraq slide toward religious and ethnic civil war.


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