Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Why the Iraq policy isn't working

President Bush's sad speech today outlined the purpose of the war in Iraq, how the mission is succeeding, and what defines the eventual victory that will allow U.S. troops to come home.

The purpose, the president said, is to secure the safety of the American people from terrorists now in Iraq who share the ideology of the terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. Fight them there or fight them here, the president said, presenting a demonstrably false choice. The September 11th attack was carried out by nineteen people. With armies that small, al-Qaeda can be in more than one place at the same time. If they truly are so tied up in Iraq that they can't attack inside the United States, perhaps we can drop all the screening and frisking and ID checks of American citizens. The president might be surprised at what it would do for his poll numbers.

The deeper part of the president's argument for the war, that free societies are peaceful societies, is absolutely valid. But his premise is flawed. Iraq is not a free society and is not on the road to becoming a free society.

Freedom is a condition that exists under a government of limited power. It is not a kit made up of voting booths and paper constitutions and public schools and cheerful slogans.

The power of the government of Iraq is unlimited, because every important industry in the country is a state-owned enterprise. The people who control the government control everybody's economic future. They control all the oil revenue. All the industry. All the jobs. All the wealth.

Try to imagine what the United States would look like under those circumstances. Imagine if all economic enterprise in the country was assigned by the national government and no one was free to compete with it. The only path to success in a system like that is connections, loyalty, unthinking obedience, and silent grumbling in case the walls have ears.

This is why totalitarian states have to buy or steal technology. A system of state-owned enterprise rewards qualities that are the opposite of those needed for innovation and advancement.

Voting booths don't help a system like this. Suppose the Kremlin power struggles had been resolved at the ballot box. Nothing would have changed except the names of the thugs who lived in luxury while everybody else waited for permission to get a new apartment. The fall of the Soviet Union was accompanied by privatization. Even though there was corruption, privatization reduced the power of the government and created freedom. Corrupt business tycoons don't have prisons and armies.

Today you can see the process in reverse as Vladimir Putin consolidates his government takeover of the oil and gas industries. Freedom in Russia is being reduced as government ownership of property increases.

Private property is the foundation of freedom. Privatization is what's missing in Iraq. We had our chance to privatize the oil industry and other enterprises in Iraq, but we missed it. It's not too late to pressure the Iraqi government to privatize, but President Bush shows no sign of understanding that this is the only solution to the violence in Iraq. Perhaps he fears that he would be seen as a tool of oil company interests. That would be a sad reason for the waste of American blood and treasure in the futile pursuit of an impossible contradiction.

The president went on at some length in his speech to explain the progress made in training the Iraqi Army. He believes the Iraqi armed forces will reach a point of competence that will permit the U.S. troops to come home without endangering the fragile new government of Iraq.

He's dreaming.

As long as the government of Iraq controls all the wealth of the country, there will be a bloody struggle for control of it. U.S. troops are like police cruisers on an Interstate highway. As soon as they're out of sight, normal driving resumes.

The president said the free government of Iraq will serve as a model for free governments in the rest of the region, and the spread of freedom around the world will make us all safer.

He would be right if Iraq really had a free government. If the Iraqi people were shareholders in their oil industry, owners instead of supplicants, the people of other oil-rich nations might well find the new system attractive enough to risk an overthrow of the dictators who run the show in their own countries.

Instead, we promote the ridiculous idea that people can choose their dictator in free elections and we call that progress on the road to democracy.

Elections are not freedom. Property is freedom. People who control their own economic future without the permission of the government are free. People who are forced to rely on the government for financial survival are not free.

The president quoted a letter written by a young American soldier who was later killed in Iraq. "Everybody dies," the soldier wrote, "but few get to do it for something as important as freedom."

For Corporal Starr and all the other lost Americans, for all the grievously wounded, for all the shattered families, we should make an effort to get it right.

Copyright 2005

For historical background and source notes on the history of creating freedom in America, read A Plan to Get Out of Iraq: Blackstone's Fundamental Rights and the Power of Property at