What would John Locke have thought?

In his speech on Libya, the US president added the "spirit of 1776" terminology to his argument, but the real question is whether "freedom" is really what these particular revolutionaries are seeking.

Obama (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
What would John Locke have thought of US President Barack Obama’s speech on Libya? That’s a relevant question, because it was Obama who invoked the American Revolution, and few if any political theorists influenced America’s revolutionary founders more than Locke.
Thomas Jefferson, for example, believed that everything written between Aristotle and Locke didn’t add up to much.
“Born, as we are,” declared the president, “out of a revolution by those who longed to be free, we welcome the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa, and that young people are leading the way. Because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States.”
In his televised address, Obama’s initial rationale for his defense of US-led military action against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces was an appeal to moral conscience, a concern over “images of slaughter” and “looming genocide.”
While it is hard not to be moved by such horrific portents, it is equally hard to understand why such a motivational rationale should be limited to the Libyan theater of conflict. Civil wars in Chad, Somalia and Sudan, as well as sectarian violence in Nigeria and border conflicts between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti have left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. In the Darfur region of Sudan alone, it is estimated that more than 300,000 people have been killed, with atrocities reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide, under Obama’s watch.
Perhaps it can be argued that there are factors other than oil, such as timing and coalition opportunities, to explain Obama’s policy of Libyan exclusivism. Furthermore, fear of theoretical inconsistency may not justify consistent inaction.
BUT IT was probably this inherent contradiction that drove the president to add the “spirit of 1776” terminology to his argument. What Obama seems to have missed, though, is that this leads us to another conceptual contradiction: If unrest in the Middle East is indeed the result of “people longing to be free,” why should American intervention be limited to Libya? Why should the freedom-seekers of Bahrain, Syria and Yemen be deprived of American benevolence? On a deeper level, the real question is whether “freedom” is really what these revolutionaries are seeking.
Granted, they want to overthrow their governments, and granted, those governments are despotic, but that does not mean they want to replace tyranny with freedom.
That “history is on the move” in the Middle East is clear, but is it moving forward or backward? In Egypt, the revolution “succeeded” in bringing the military to power, and elections have been postponed with the explanation that, at least at present, the Muslim Brotherhood might otherwise gain decisive influence.
This is not a scenario at all reminiscent of the Continental Congress.
In Bahrain, it is the Iranian mullahs behind the Shi’ite uprising against the Sunni government. In Syria, it is the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Sunni revolt against the ruling Alawites. In Yemen, the fingerprints of al-Qaida are everywhere. In Libya, the unnatural geographic cohesion of rival clans is coming apart after years of suppression, along with traces of al-Qaida agitation.
These are religious, ethnic and tribal conflicts, whose battle cry is far from “taxation without representation is tyranny.” Should the will of the people – any people – be respected even if it aims to replace one tyranny with another? LOCKE, IN contradistinction to other natural-law theorists, thought not. He refused to countenance the legitimacy of willful submission to despotic rule and freedom deprivation. In his Second Treatise of Government he wrote, “For no body can transfer to another more power than he has in himself; and no body has an absolute arbitrary power over himself, or any other, to destroy his own life, or take away the life or property of another. A man... cannot subject himself to the arbitrary power of another.”
For Locke, and for his followers in Philadelphia and Boston, humans have not only a right but an obligation to rebel against the deprivation of their liberty, the result of tyrannical absolutist government, but they have an equally uncompromising obligation not to advance alternative forms of the same or encourage them.
There remains only one government in the Middle East that is based on ideas inherently akin to those of the American Founding Fathers, and it appears that it shall remain that way for the foreseeable future. Especially if Obama remains in office.
The writer has served as a senior adviser to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and deputy director-general of the Education Ministry.