Best Defense

Some questions about COIN (IV): Do people prefer freedom or electricity?

By Major Tom Mcilwaine, Queen’s Royal Hussars Best Defense guest columnist Question Set Four — What makes us think that schools and hospitals are going to help us alter the behavior patterns of others and win people over to our way of thinking? In the magnificent remake of the classic film Red Dawn, there is ...

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By Major Tom Mcilwaine, Queen’s Royal Hussars

Best Defense guest columnist

Question Set Four — What makes us think that schools and hospitals are going to help us alter the behavior patterns of others and win people over to our way of thinking? In the magnificent remake of the classic film Red Dawn, there is an excellent scene in which the North Korean occupiers offer medical facilities and electrical power in return for cooperation with their regime. The bargain is not successful. Americans, it seems, prefer freedom to electricity. At the risk of drawing theory from the scriptwriters of Red Dawn, this seems to me to be a reasonable reaction — it is certainly in line with the reactions I experienced to development projects in Iraq. People want electricity, yes, and they will accept development projects if they are offered — just as the Indian people accepted and (perhaps) benefitted from railways, the telegraph, and the legal system imposed by the British during the Raj. They still wanted the British to leave, though. Why would this have changed? This does not mean that ignoring the material needs of the population is helpful nor that it cannot work if you select an endstate they do want (e.g. their independence) and couple it with development. It does follow that development is not enough and cannot be detached from politics: we must remember that politics is the art of the possible.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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