I've seen the "freedom isn't free" line passed around so much that, even though I agree with it, I tend to ignore it for the most part. But in this case, the author [of the British paper The Telegraph article] is expressing it from a European viewpoint, which made me look at our country in a way I typically don't...
The general idea behind the author's op-ed is that Americans are not just being rhetorical when we talk about freedom and that we really are a nation willing to lay down our lives for freedom. His article is somewhat a chastisement against Europeans who doubt American commitment to this lofty ideal. I don't necessarily disagree with the article, but I definitely think that the claim "freedom isn't free" and its corollary, "the cost of freedom", mean very different things to different Americans.
My general impression of the conservative understanding of "freedom isn't free" is that it is primarily a justification for war. In the framework of Iraq, for example, "freedom isn't free" means both that we should donate our blood and treasure to this disaster and that the lives of the Iraqi people are an acceptable "cost of freedom". The Iraq war is seen as justified by conservatives because they accept the framing of Hussein's Iraq as an enemy of freedom in its broadest ideological sense. An authoritarian dictator like Saddam Hussein is incompatible with freedom as conservatives present it. Thus, "freedom isn't free" means that an enemy of the ideal of freedom cannot be allowed to stand uncontested, and any amount of sacrifice is worth the vanquishing of that enemy. Thus war, and all the horror that goes along with it, is justified as "the cost of freedom" because, of course, "freedom isn't free".
Unfortunately, then rears the ugly head of conservative hypocrisy in all its malignant glory. For if "freedom isn't free" and invading Iraq is winning freedom, then surely "the cost of freedom" must be born, correct? But the nature of that sacrifice, that "cost", is what gives the lie to the conservative belief behind this notion. For who's truly making the sacrifice? The American people? That's a cruel joke. The 130,000 soldiers currently stationed in Iraq, and their fallen compatriots, are bearing the "cost of freedom", not the other 299 million Americans safe at home. Tremendous amounts of money have been spent on this war, but Americans have not born that burden. The Bush administration has borrowed the funds to fight in Iraq, while cutting taxes, particularly for the wealthy. Not only are Americans not paying for this war, we're actually borrowing money so that we may pay less to our civic responsibilities than we did before the war ever began! "Freedom isn't free" in Iraq, but Americans certainly aren't paying for it. Or, at least, not we today. Our children and grandchildren will pay for it, as will the thousands whose families are being torn apart by this debacle.
Further, we've extracted a very heavy "cost of freedom" from the Iraqi people. Conservatives believe "freedom isn't free" so fervently that not only are they willing to consign an entire nation to death, destruction and chaos but are then offended that the Iraqis aren't grateful for the opportunity to pay that "cost". It's an almost insurmountable ideological blindness that allows these "warhawks" to not see that freedom means many different things to many different people, and nothing at all to the dead.
It's a gross moral travesty that anyone would support a war in which only our military volunteers are fighting and money we borrow from other nations is funding. The Bush administration has done everything in its power to separate the American people from any responsibility for the Iraqi invasion. And yet, thankfully, the American people have still eventually turned against this fiasco, albeit slowly. To conservatives who no longer march in solidarity with the Bush administration, this war is a failure of implementation. I say that's a disgusting, weak-kneed attempt to justify once supporting the worst foreign policy disaster of my life time. This war is a failure of leadership, of policy, of ideology and, most importantly, of humanity. Practical concerns about logistical and tactical implementation have their place, certainly, but are not an impeachment of the war on any philosophical grounds. This war was wrong, egregiously wrong, and had it been more sound tactically and gained the end the Bush administration desired (which it never could have), it would still be wrong. "Freedom isn't free" and neither is wanton violence and imperialist war, the cost of which we and the Iraqis will be paying for many years to come.
From a liberal perspective, I feel that "freedom isn't free" is also true, though for very different reasons. Certainly there have been times in our history where the cause of war has been the cause of freedom. The American Civil War for one and World War II for another. In these examples, there was a very real threat, both to the United States and to our friends and allies abroad. In those cases our military, be it volunteer or conscripted, paid "the cost of freedom" for others and it was a noble sacrifice they made. Unlike the Iraq war of today, the American people stood up and paid the "cost of freedom" together in these past conflicts. The Bush administration's policies have forced the Iraqi people to pay a heavy "cost of freedom" without even giving them the choice of whether or not they felt that cost was bearable. There were other ways to help the Iraqi people and maybe the cost would have been just as high. But that should have been the Iraqis decision to make, not ours.
To me, "freedom isn't free" reminds of 9/11, of all times. On that day, "the cost of freedom" was paid and a tremendous cost it was. Our liberal democracy, our open culture, allowed our enemies to strike at us and exact a terrible price in blood for whatever cause drives their hatred of the United States. Those 3,000 who gave their lives on 9/11 paid the price for the freedoms Americans enjoy. The GOP, through support of legislation like the Patriot Act and programs like the NSA surveillance program, would like to ameliorate that cost much in the way they do so with Iraq. They want to make freedom cheap and easy, by taking away the very freedom for which so many Americans have died. Realizing that our free society leaves us vulnerable sometimes is the true "cost of freedom". "Freedom isn't free" because our embrace of it can be exploited. That's a cost I'm happy to pay, because I believe our freedom is worth it. It's worth it to be necessarily vulnerable so that we don't unfairly profile our Arab-American brothers and sisters. It's worth it in order to protect the freedom of the 7 million Muslims living in the United States, by showing them that they will not be retaliated against because of the acts perpetrated by those claiming the same faith. It's worth it in order to insure that we are safe in our private lives, that our government does not own us or control us as an authoritarian police state would. Most of all, it's worth laying down our lives sometimes in order to demonstrate that our liberal democracy will not be subverted, either by Al-Qaida or well-intentioned bureaucrats.
"Freedom isn't free" because it requires real sacrifice, not just bellicosity. "The cost of freedom" is high, but the fear of that cost should not be mitigated by government debt and voluntary wars. Freedom is not our birthright as Americans; it's a privilege we earn by our commitment to it.