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Gary Younge
The limits of generosity

And so, to rousing applause, three new representatives - one black, one mulatto, and one white - were welcomed from the Caribbean island of San Domingo, now known as Haiti. The man who had overthrown that aristocracy of skin in Haiti was Toussaint L'Ouverture, the leader of the most successful slave rebellion in history. The French revolution had already established the notion of liberté , egalité , fraternité ; Toussaint's uprising would test just how universal the rights of man really were, and just how enlightened its European sponsors would be.

With revolutionary France as an ally, he led his nation against British and Spanish invasion. But what has been consecrated can also be desecrated. When France went from revolution to reaction under Napoleon Bonaparte, it also went from being an ally of San Domingo's black-led government to being an enemy. Toussaint was captured and shipped to France on Bonaparte's orders.

For some, even then, Toussaint was a cause celebre . "There is not a breathing of the common wind that will forget thee," wrote William Wordsworth of the imprisoned leader. "Thou has great allies; thy friends are exultation, agonies and love and man's unconquerable mind."

Two months later, on April 7 1803, Toussaint died in a French prison. It was not just a man Bonaparte was trying to kill, or even a nation he was eager to conquer. It was the very notion of liberation itself he was trying to crush.

"The freedom of the negroes, if recognised in St Domingue and legalised by France," he told one of his ministers, "would at all times be a rallying point for freedom-seekers of the New World."

Two hundred years to the day after Toussaint's death, as US troops wonder why the Iraqis they have bombed in southern cities are not rushing out to embrace them, his legacy feels more relevant than ever. He fought slavery so that he could enjoy freedom, not so that he could swap a domestic slave master for a colonial one. He welcomed foreign solidarity, but understood that only the people of San Domingo could be the architects of their own liberation.

As US troops encircle Baghdad for the final swoop, you get the impression that, in the eyes of US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, freedom is not a banner to which oppressed people flock, but rather a state that must at times be inflicted on the reluctant. To them the Iraqi people cannot be trusted to be subjects in their own emancipation and so must resign themselves to be objects in the "liberation" the carpet bombers have in store.

The most generous explanation they have advanced for why we have yet to see any dancing in the streets of Basra is that so long as war is in play, Saddam may be alive and the Ba'ath party exists, ambivalence offers the best promise of survival pending an uncertain outcome.

"They cannot be sure in their own minds yet that we mean what we say," Blair said. "In their own minds, they have to be very circumspect until they're sure the regime's gone."

This is generous only because it endows the Iraqi people at least with memory and cognitive faculties rarely assigned to brown-skinned people under occupation. The Shia remember rising against Saddam in 1991, with US encouragement, only to be abandoned and massacred by the regime.

Extend that generosity back a few more years, however, and Iraqis will also remember that those who seek to disarm Saddam today armed him yesterday - that those who come to liberate them today enslaved them yesterday, suppressing international criticism as Saddam gassed and tortured. Extend their memories beyond Iraq's borders and they may also remember Jenin or the massacres at Sabra and Shatila and wonder how the countries who bankroll oppression in Palestine can bring freedom to Iraq.

But the limits to this generosity are imposed by the west's own poor memory. Led by the United States of Amnesia, the past is an inconvenience. Instead, we live in the ever-evolving present and its ever-changing enemy.

M ore consistent and more repugnant is the missionary position, which is best articulated by the home secretary, David Blunkett. Like a 19th-century crusader, Blunkett genuinely believes that while Iraqis don't know what's best for them right now, they will understand, after they have been conquered, colonised and thoroughly humiliated, that all of this murder and destruction is in their best interests.

"We know that for the moment we will be seen as the villains," he said. But he promises that views would change "once this is over and there is a free Iraq, with a democratic state, building the affluence that can come from an educated people with enterprise and capability".

At that stage, he said, "the population as a whole will say that we want a free country, we want a state to live in where we can use our talent to the full".

The trouble is, if Iraq is to be truly free, there will be no place for Americans or British troops to occupy it. There is no doubt that Iraqis want rid of Saddam. But it does not follow that they want to be ruled by an American viceroy. That is a choice imposed on them by Bush and Blair in defiance of international will. But it is not, nor has it ever been, the only option. Having been "liberated" from a domestic tyrant, the Iraqis will then have to liberate themselves from a foreign one.

The notion that the British or Americans will withdraw as soon as democracy is restored defies all understanding of history and is betrayed by the very actions and methods of the soldiers on the ground.

"It's a similar situation to Northern Ireland," said platoon Sgt Barry Little, who spent five and a half years there. "It's a terrorist threat more than an enemy threat."

The parallel is as instructive as it is disconcerting. For once Saddam's regime is definitively crushed, ordinary Iraqis may well pour out onto the streets just as there were accounts of Catholics greeting British troops when they arrived in Northern Ireland in 1969. But the antagonism that underpinned the British presence in the province soon reasserted itself. The result was a war that spanned more than 25 years and claimed hundreds of lives, underpinned by economic inequality, social injustice and the loss of civil liberties throughout the UK.

Toussaint's life taught us that liberation cannot be imposed from above, let alone be imported from outside, and that the rights of man are universal or they are meaningless, and irrepressible once they are understood.

"In overthrowing me, you have cut down in San Domingo only the trunk of the tree of liberty," he told his French captors as he was led away. "It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous and deep."

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