Monday, December 11, 2006

Who Killed Democracy?

[posted by Callimachus]


Three views on democracy as an export. The first is a Cold War perspective from the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick in a famous essay reprinted on the occasion of her death. She slams the Carter administration for "actively collaborat[ing] in the replacement of moderate autocrats friendly to American interests with less friendly autocrats of extremist persuasion."

Ah, the Cold War. Don't you miss it? Kirkpatrick's essay is historically valuable as a concise statement of the general tenor of American policies as they arrived during that long, slow fever:

In each of these countries [China, Cuba, Vietnam, Angola], the American effort to impose liberalization and democratization on a government confronted with violent internal opposition not only failed, but actually assisted the coming to power of new regimes in which ordinary people enjoy fewer freedoms and less personal security than under the previous autocracy--regimes, moreover, hostile to American interests and policies.

She sees democracy promotion by itself as an unworthy goal, and generally in conflict with American self-interests in its death-struggle with the Soviets. And it was a death-struggle. Reagan read the USSR correctly. But his administration's focus on that danger obscured and warped its view of much of the rest of the world. A writer like Kirkpatrick could skim the history books and find all sorts of justifications for supporting the U.S.-friendly dictator. Even a justification that to do so was, ultimately, the surest road to democracy!

In the relatively few places where they exist, democratic governments have come into being slowly, after extended prior experience with more limited forms of participation during which leaders have reluctantly grown accustomed to tolerating dissent and opposition, opponents have accepted the notion that they may defeat but not destroy incumbents, and people have become aware of government's effects on their lives and of their own possible effects on government. Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits. ...

Although there is no instance of a revolutionary "socialist" or Communist society being democratized, right-wing autocracies do sometimes evolve into democracies--given time, propitious economic, social, and political circumstances, talented leaders, and a strong indigenous demand for representative government. Something of the kind is in progress on the Iberian peninsula and the first steps have been taken in Brazil. Something similar could conceivably have also occurred in Iran and Nicaragua if contestation and participation had been more gradually expanded.

A world where your choice was Somoza or Ortega. The shah or the ayatollah. Is it any wonder that, having lived too long in that world, I much prefer one where the alternative of "a real chance for freedom and prosperity for people" is allowed?

For a modern view, here's The Road to Democracy in the Arab World by Uriya Shavit, which paints a painful picture of how America's self-interested Cold War history in the modern Middle East has given democracy such a bad odor there that the natural evolution of freedom in the Arab world has been set back generations.

Clearly, the United States must adopt a new doctrine, one that attempts to sever the connection in the Arab mind between democracy and the promotion of Western power. First, this doctrine must acknowledge the necessity of maintaining American forces on Iraqi soil, since a hasty withdrawal is liable to tip an already unstable situation toward wide-scale anarchy. Moreover, such a move will certainly be interpreted in the Arab world as proof not only of the West’s weakness, but also of the weakness of liberalism itself. Second, this doctrine should incorporate two new principles into its previously stated commitment to Iraq: One, a reduction in the contingency between potential outcomes of the democratization process in Arab societies and the condition of the American economy; and two, the universality of American standards in the field of human rights. Whereas the first principle will afford the United States more room for political maneuvering - and, in time, rid it of the suspicion prevalent in the Arab world that its true goals are imperialistic - the second principle will lend its foreign policy the credibility it currently lacks and help those Arab liberals who oppose their regime obtain the legitimacy denied to them today. Indeed, one of the main difficulties that today’s Arab freedom fighters face is the suspicion that they are lackeys of the West. So long as America continues to discriminate between liberals, advocates of the pan-Arab idea, and Islamist activists, then democratic leaders like Riyadh Seif in Syria, whose commitment to liberalism has withstood over four years of incarceration, will not gain the support of his own people.

Which frankly looks impossible. The only way to sell democracy to the Arabs is to uncouple it entirely from American interests. The only way to convince the American people to sacrifice for the sake of bringing democracy to places we can't find on a map is to tie it firmly to American interests.

Still, though, I have to wonder: the post-Saddam history of Iraq, even putting the worst possible face on facts, is not a total failure. It's about a 20 percent success -- considering the Kurdish region which is somehow excluded from any general statements made these days about Iraq. If the rest of Iraq was in the condition of Kurdistan, we'd consider the whole effort a thundering success. And certainly America's history with the Kurds is as full of betrayals and naked self-interest as any chapter in the Cold War.

Which brings me to the third view:

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri will still connive to bring the new caliphate to Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond. And they won't be stopped by either cruise missiles or court subpoenas, but only by a resolute United States and Middle Eastern societies that elect their own leaders and live with the results.

We can demonize President Bush and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld all we want, or wish they presented their views in a kindlier and more artful fashion. We can wish that the United States were better at training Iraqis and killing terrorists to secure Iraq. But the same general mess in the Middle East will still confront Bush's and Rumsfeld's successors.

And long after the present furor over Iraq dies down, the idea of trying to help democratic reformers fight terrorists, and to distance America from failed regimes that are antithetical to our values, simply will not go away.

That tough idealism will stay — because in the end it is the only right and smart thing to do.

Which still seems closest to mine.

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