At the beginning of the week, the Coalition forcibly closed al-Hawza, the newspaper of the radical Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. A day later, he became “an outlaw” in occupied Iraq. It didn’t take long for Sadr to call on his supporters to reject “demonstrations, as your enemy loves to terrify and suppress opinion, and despises peoples. I ask you not to resort to demonstrations because they have become a losing card, and we should seek other ways. Terrorize your enemy, as we cannot remain silent over its violations.” The United States must pay attention to his words, not only because he commands a militia of several thousand, but because Sadr has caught sight of a fundamental flaw in our occupation strategy. The coalition can’t occupy to advance freedom and then infringe it when expedient; it isn’t possible to reconcile infringements on freedom with motivations for being in Iraq.
The invasion of Iraq emerged as a central component of the Bush administration’s post-Sept. 11 grand strategy for the Middle East. The strategy was premised on the idea that Middle Eastern terrorism was inextricably linked to political frustration, and to an extent, economic frustration; that repressive regimes, repressing all forms of organized dissent, engendered fanaticism, and that fanatics found eager recruits in populations heavily weighted towards un-employed middle-aged people. The poor governing and corruption of repressive governments — along with the strain that dictatorships’ heavy military spending, necessary to retain power, placed on their countries’ economies — created uniquely combustible conditions. In this context, tensions throughout the region, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, often provided a spark. The basic idea then was simple: the United States should lay the groundwork for replacing autocratic regimes with representative ones. These regimes would foster a civic society where dissent could be expressed and channeled through non-violent channels. The Bush strategy was commendable because it identified the roots of terror, and sought to extirpate them.
The administration’s detractors often question the targeting of Iraq, whose links to terrorism were far more tenuous then those of other states. I believe a number of intersecting reasons made a compelling case for choosing Iraq — the desire to democratize and transform the region; the threat of WMD, which had been underestimated at the end of the first Gulf War; Iraq’s record of hostility in the region, including its invasion of Kuwait; and Iraq’s brutality against its own people. Iraq would become the shining beacon of democracy and freedom in the region and would galvanize reform, in much the same way that the success of Japan and South Korea deprived the hardliners throughout East Asia of their argument that capitalism and freedom were imperialist devices to enrich other nations at Asia’s expense.
The United States therefore made its greatest mistake several days ago when it closed down Sadr’s newspaper. In doing so, the coalition cited a provision that allowed it to close down a press that incites violence and instability. But the coalition admitted that all Sadr’s press did was circulate false, vitriolic rumors, fueling hostility to the coalition — it did not expressly call for violence. For instance, the paper attributed attacks by suicide bombers to U.S. forces. Forcible closure is inherently incompatible with the administration’s vision for a free Iraq, which was a primary motivation for invading. It should not be for the coalition to decide what is true or false, or what the people are allowed to read. The action has electrified resistance and added a certain truth to shouts of U.S. hypocrisy throughout the region. If the United States is to succeed in Iraq it must set a precedent for dissent, even when the dissent is false or directed against America. Instead of forcible closure, the U.S. should step up efforts to express its own version of events. The United States should understand that in a robust democracy, even extremists are permitted to express their views.
The move is also sure to play into the hands of Sadr. Hamid al-Bayati, the spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has already observed the degree of “new passion for [Sadr].” Thus, even if the closure was justified, it was neither wise nor conducive to U.S. interests. The United States should learn the lessons Israel learned the hard way stemming from its occupation of the West Bank in 1980 — namely, that censoring organs of free speech alienates support and radicalizes the population. The censorship of Iraqis delivers a propaganda victory to those skeptical of the American desire to spread freedom.
Philip Uhde is a freshman in Branford College.