Thinking Aloud: J.S. Mill and Today’s Headlines

Mar. 26, 2015 by Darius

I recently read John Stuart Mill’s 1859 essay “A Few Words on Non-Intervention.”  Although I wanted to like the essay, I found most of it to be a racist rationalization of the British Empire.  However, there were two passages that caught my eye as all too applicable to current events.

The first: “A government which needs foreign support to enforce obedience from its own citizens, is one which ought not to exist; and the assistance given to it by foreigners is hardly ever anything but the sympathy of one despotism with another.”

It’s hard not to think of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s recent request for foreign intervention to stop the advance of the Houthis and of the Saudi-led “assistance” today.

It may be useful to note that although Hadi is frequently referred to in the press and by the Saudis as the rightful leader of Yemen, he was never elected.  He just happened to be vice president when his boss, Ali Abdullah Saleh, agreed to leave office in the wake of Arab Spring protests.  Hadi became “acting president” and was supposed to see Yemen through a transition to a national unity government.  That was in 2011.  Long transition, apparently.

The second passage from Mill: “[If a people] have not sufficient love of liberty to be able to wrest it from merely domestic oppressors, the liberty which is bestowed on them by other hands than their own, will have nothing real, nothing permanent.  No people ever was and remained free, but because it was determined to be so…”

Iraq instantly came to mind.

I don’t mean to insult the Iraqi people, but let’s take a look at history.  Prior to the US invasion, Iraq had been ruled by Saddam Hussein since 1968.  In that time, there were major rebellions against Hussein’s government by the Kurds and by Shia sections of the population.  These rebellions failed to attract popular support outside their sectarian groups and were ultimately crushed.  In 2003, the US invaded, deposed Hussein, and tried to set up a government in which everyone could get along.  By 2005, Iraq was close to all-out sectarian civil war.  More US soldiers and changing counterinsurgency tactics brought some peace.  Then the US left, and Iraq went to hell in a handbasket again.  Now Iran is deeply involved in Iraq, for better or for worse, and yesterday, the US reluctantly began launching airstrikes in support of the Shia militias and Iraqi troops trying to take the city of Tikrit back from ISIS.

Saddam Hussein was an international pariah for most of his rule and cannot be said to have been kept in power by a foreign power.  Yet he was never overthrown, in part because his domestic opponents could never put aside their differences any better than they have been able to do since then to “wrest” their freedom from him.

Iraq’s government and citizens have yet to put any emphasis on achieving or maintaining when “bestowed on them by other hands” anything that resembles J.S. Mill’s idea of liberty—namely, a pluralistic, restricted government.

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