Much of my career in journalism has been spent viewing, and writing about, wars and revolutions and turmoil in different quarters of the globe. Some foreign correspondents get jaded about all this, but my most precious memories are of the liberation and joy that has often ensued from such upheaval.
When I first went to Africa as a correspondent, only Liberia and Ethiopia were free. By the end of my six-year stint, most of Africa south of the Sahara had shrugged off colonial rule, although apartheid-oppressed South Africa remained a sore exception.
In time, South Africa made a remarkable transition to freedom. Indelibly engraved in my memory are those pictures of long, winding lines of emancipated Africans waiting to vote in their first democratic elections.
Another of my mental engravings: The joy of young Indonesians, who had grown up under Sukarno's despotism, dancing in the streets in celebration of the dictator's fall. And in the Philippines, the outpouring of happiness when the tyranny of Marcos came to an end.
More recently, a photo in my memory book is of broadly smiling Afghans, arms outstretched in greeting to American soldiers liberating them from the stifling rule of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Too much of the world still lives in darkness and oppression. This is the principal problem besetting the Arab lands. But over the years, freedom has gained in Latin America and Asia and Eastern Europe, and when it does, and is accompanied by economic progress, it generally makes for greater stability.
In some countries, like war-torn Afghanistan, progress is painfully slow. But share in the ecstasy of young girls there who can now go to school again after five years of denial under Taliban rule. Such immense pleasure from this simple restored right is almost inconceivable to those of us in the free world.
It is worthwhile pondering all this as the US teeters on the brink of war with Iraq. Yes, a critical factor in the Bush administration's motivation in toppling Saddam Hussein is to eliminate obscene weapons of mass destruction that could be used against Americans or any other nation in the world.
When President Bush outlined his national security strategy Sept. 20, most reaction focused on the concept of preemptive military action against states and terrorist groups considered hostile. But another important plank in the strategy was the encouragement of "free and open societies." Mr. Bush said the US would campaign against violations of human dignity, promote freedom of religion and conscience, and encourage free markets and free trade.
Thus another significant prospective by-product of military action against Mr. Hussein could be the liberation of 22 million Iraqis from their stultifying economic and political bondage. Despite its present austerity, Iraq after Hussein would be no flat-on-its back country like Afghanistan. It has rich resources of oil, and a freed Iraq would attract foreign investors.
Cobbling together a post-Hussein government would be an awesome challenge. Kurds, themselves riven by rivalries, predominate in the north. Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, Shiite Arabs, who are in the majority, resent control by Sunni Arabs, who are in the minority.
Outside Iraq, a jumble of exiled groups, representing religious, nationalist, and disaffected military factions, vie for funding and favor in capitals from London to Washington to Amman and Damascus.
As we have seen in Afghanistan, freedom does not bring instant political cohesion or Jeffersonian democracy. Factions tug, pull, and joust. That is not, however, a reason to deny them freedom.
Clearly, the US would be an important player in shoring up post-Hussein Iraq both politically and economically. Says Vice President Dick Cheney: "In other times, the world saw how the United States defeated fierce enemies, then helped rebuild their countries. We would act in that same spirit after a regime change in Iraq.... A liberated Iraq can be a great nation once again."
Ridding Iraq of Hussein and the dangerous weapons he has declined to surrender would be an act of major significance. Replacing him with a democratic system that would have an inspiring ripple effect in neighboring Iran and throughout the entire Middle Eastern region would be just as meaningful.
I look forward to adding another photo to my memory book of jubilant Iraqis throwing flowers and celebratory handfuls of rice at the US and allied liberators.
John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.