Commentary

When Liberators Become Occupiers

Democratic Senator Zell Miller’s impassioned speech at the Republican National Convention was notable on several counts. The ex-Marine seems to have been particularly incensed by the suggestion that U.S. forces in Iraq were occupiers and not liberators. He countered that American troops are never occupiers — that they are, and can only be, liberators.

That is his opinion. But his opinion doesn’t matter. The opinions of the Iraqi people are all that matter.

The U.S. forces that in April 2003 may have been liberators are, today, in September 2004, widely seen as occupiers. These sentiments have been building for months. When asked in April 2004 whether they viewed the U.S.-led coalition as “liberators” or “occupiers,” 71 percent of all respondents said “occupiers.” According to another poll taken in July, two-thirds of Iraqis were either “strongly” or “somewhat” opposed to the foreign military presence in their country.

In history, U.S. forces often have been seen as liberators—for example, when they drove foreign armies out of occupied countries. The United States led the forces that drove German troops out of France in 1944. We were seen as liberators; by our acts, and by the sacrifice of thousands of American soldiers, the United States freed the people of France from the yoke of Nazi oppression. U.S. forces, joined by British, Canadian, and other allies, liberated the Dutch and the Belgians just a few months later.

In 1991, American forces liberated Kuwait, a country of dubious origins led by rulers of questionable legitimacy, but nonetheless a sovereign nation-state, recognized as such by international law. When Saddam Hussein declared Kuwait a lost province of Iraq, and when he sent Iraqi troops over the border under the pretense of returning the territory to the Iraqi people, few people saw his actions as anything other than unprovoked invasion. A few months later, Kuwaitis welcomed us as liberators when we drove the foreign army from their lands.

Unfortunately, even when their intentions are pure, armies of liberation can become agents of occupation if they do not quickly return power to the subject population. For example, the United States compelled Japanese forces to evacuate Southeast Asia — an act of liberation celebrated by, among others, Ho Chi Minh. But Japanese forces had themselves expelled French forces. And when U.S. policymakers chose to invite the French back into the region, Ho and other Vietnamese nationalists saw perfidy, not magnanimity, in our so-called act of liberation.

And, occasionally, U.S. armies of liberation can become not just agents of occupation, but occupiers themselves. In fairness, and unlike empires of the past, U.S. strategy rarely begins with such war aims. And if our security truly depended upon maintaining U.S. troops indefinitely in a foreign country, then most Americans would support these deployments, and few would care whether our troops were called occupiers.

But U.S. security rarely depends on U.S. troops in foreign lands, and is more often undermined by it. The United States drove the decrepit Spanish Empire from one of its last remaining outposts in the Philippines in 1898, even though Spain posed no threat to the United States. Within a few short months, American plans to turn power over to the Filipino people were scrapped. And U.S. forces found themselves locked in a fight against a bitter insurgency that dragged on for over a decade. A handful of Americans died to liberate the Philippines from the Spanish; over 4,000 died in the struggle to stamp out Filipino independence. As tragic as those deaths were, they were exceeded in number by those on the other side. Some estimates place the Filipino death toll at more than 200,000.

We are in danger of repeating our mistakes from a century ago. In 2003, a foreign army did not occupy Iraq, and its bloody ruler was beholden to no foreign power. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, but he was an Iraqi. The goal of U.S. policy should be to hand over real, full, and genuine sovereignty to the Iraqi people, who must then work out their own destiny, on the understanding that their actions not pose a threat to the United States. And we must leave. If we do not, then the noble intentions behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq will be completely overshadowed by the humiliation of the occupation.

Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is director of the task force that prepared the new report, Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War against Al Qaeda (2004).