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For Whom Will You Protest?

Ken Nesmith

MIT will celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy this week. As we face rapidly escalating foreign policy crises, we would do well to keep his words from his famous letter written from a Birmingham jail to eight clergymen from Alabama: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote, explaining that he could not “sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned” about wretched injustices enacted elsewhere. King lived with forceful intolerance of injustice everywhere.

Consternation and protest over the coming war with Iraq continues. A massive rally is planned after Valentine’s day in New York City. Poets refused a First Lady-sponsored White House poetry event to express their dissent. France and Germany still oppose war; elements of international disapproval remain.

Sadly, little attention is paid to the injustice Saddam does to the Iraqi people. Most objections lead with harsh condemnations of U.S. motives and methods and follow with tangential concerns that we’ll be dropping bombs on innocent Iraqi citizens. Objectors in America froth with anger over Bush administration hawkishness and demand that we just leave Iraq alone and well-inspected. Our sanctions, they say, have done enough to hurt the Iraqi people. They don’t need our bombs too. This respect for the safety of the Iraqi people is the only legitimate source of objection, while perpetual resentment of the American government extended to yet one more issue is not.

If protesters have time between rallies, they might like to consider what Iraqis think about all this. A column in the Feb. 5 edition of The New York Times offers the perspective of Barham Salih, a Kurd living in the north of Iraq, the co-prime minister of the regional government there. He supports war against Saddam for one simple reason: “the desire of my people to be free from repression and to plant the seeds of democracy in soil that for too long has been given over to tyranny.” What protester living in a free society would have the gall to protest the achievement such a desire? Plenty, I’m sure, although their energies are surely driven by halfway justifiable resentment of the U.S. government rather than a genuine consideration of this case for war on its own merits. They would likely jump to point out that we support oppressive governments sometimes, as if that either legitimated Saddam’s actions or delegitimated our attack. It does neither. Violent repression is always bad, and it, not American government, should be the object of any protest.

This gulf war is portrayed as a war for oil, waged against the Iraqi people. The administration’s motivation for war, we’re told, is not liberation of Iraqis or nonproliferation, it is oil and regional control. The end of our action, however, is not objectionable: liberation of an oppressed nation is not a bad thing. While we have lent more than our share of support to Middle East dictators, a war to oust one should be welcomed.

The position that we are waging war ‘against the Iraqi people’ is not tenable. Objectors point without fail to the U.S.-imposed sanctions as the cause of death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. They fail to recognize that Saddam used revenues from oil sales not to address these domestic problems, but instead to pursue military development. What could he have done? We can again turn to Salih for insight. His regional government has used oil revenues not for weapons, but for education and health. It has been a successful policy.

Really reaching now, objectors insist that Iraqi society cannot support Western democracy, by which they mean democracy. Cultural and institutional structures and traditions, they insist, eliminate the prospect of a thriving civil society. One more time, let’s turn to Salih to see how his fellow Arabs, steeped in their own non-Western culture, handled the prospect of freedom: “We have a free and diverse news media, with hundreds of newspapers, magazines, and television stations. We respect the rights of minorities...We have tripled the number of schools and doctors since 1991, and infant mortality is at its lowest level ever in our region.” Freedom, liberty, life, 3; protesters, 0.

Citizens like Salih have been subject to the violent, repressive policies of the Iraqi government for decades. Saddam pursues ethnic cleansing against Kurdish Iraqis on a scale worse than the action Israel pursues against the Palestinians, but he receives minimal attention for his crimes both in the international and activist communities relative to Sharon in Israel. Both should be harshly condemned for their unjust and immoral violence. Once again, though, protesters choose to attack government policy rather than to stand up against oppression anywhere and everywhere.

The citizens of Iraq would be helped tremendously by cessation of Saddam’s rule, and although any resident of Iraq risks torture or death if he speaks out to that effect, the preference is visible in other ways that reflect the will of large numbers of people. Real estate markets are booming as buyers realize the huge potential for growth in a post-Saddam Iraq. Currently useless properties in and around Baghdad and the rest of the country are the future sites of new commerce, growth, and investment, and their value is therefore skyrocketing. Similarly, properties on the border of Iraq and Kuwait have risen radically in value as residents anticipate the prospect of a free, open border and commerce across it. Reporters write of the excitement in the street over a new era for the nation and the region.

Protesters often cast themselves as defenders against government and corporate conspiracy and oppression, fighting a battle for the weak and unheard. They would do well to at least lend token consideration for those they seek to defend. Look for slogans like “Down With Saddam,” or “Democracy Not Tyranny,” at protests this week. I don’t think you’ll find many.