Saturday, January 22, 2005


Is The Arab Middle East Ready For Democracy?

Ace ponders that question in his posting here.

My answer?


No, the Arab Middle East is not ready for democracy. Not democracy as we know it.

Does that mean they are not ready for a form of democracy? I don't think that it does.

Part of the dilemma here lies in the Left's confusion about what democracy really is. The Left talks about democracy, while the Right talks about freedom, and liberty. They are not at all synonymous.

Since the Left believes that democracy looks like free elections, representative governments, and a free press, those are among the many the benchmarks they've established for the success of our mission in Iraq. Yet, even if all those things occur, there is no guarantee that Iraq will be "free," or in fact that Iraq will make progress towards increasing its freedom.

I know I speak heresy here when I say that a bad democracy is less desirable than a good aristocracy, or oligarchy, or monarchy. As long as basic human rights are afforded protections, the right to vote is the least of my human concerns. If by giving up my right to vote I could in return obtain guarantees on every other right enshrined in the amendments to the Constitution, I would give up the ballot in a moment. If forced to choose, that is.

Why? Because I recognize that freedom is not zero-sum, an either/or proposition. America in 1776 was nowhere near as free as America is in 2005. Women had no right to vote. Many men, in fact, had no right to vote. And of course, slaves had no rights whatsoever.

Yet, America in 1776 was the freest country in the world. It had "uncorked the bottle," unleashing a force that today, over two hundred years later, has done tremendous good for the world.

But America had its fits and starts. It didn't tackle every issue at once. The worst issue, slavery, nearly led to our nation's suicide. But still, freedom and liberty marched on, because the ideals enshrined in our Constitution were written for the future, not for the present. Even where there were contradictions (the 3/5th's clause, for instance), the Founders recognized those contradictions. America was, and still is, an imperfect union. We're still unfinished today.

So, what does all this mean for the despotisms in the Middle East? It means my standards are low. Not because I think Muslims or Arabs are unready for freedom-- nothing could be farther from the truth. I just understand that every culture is unique, and democracy tends to look different in every nation where it emerges.

Italian democracy is different than British democracy which is different from American democracy which is different from Israeli democracy which is different from Japanese democracy which is different from Taiwanese democracy.

Each of those nations, and many others, took very different roads to where they are today. Some relied on strong centralized governments in their early years, like many of the nations in Asia. Some dealt with rife corruption and even civil war, like the democracies in Latin America. Some nations made rapid progress, while the democracies of others still leave a lot to be desired. And even some failed altogether, such as South Vietnam, or Weimar Germany.

Iraq, and every nation in the Middle East that undergoes this transition, will never look like America. Then again, neither will South Korea. We'll share similarities-- after all, there are only so many ways to construct a representative, electoral government-- but many elements will be unique. These elements will be influenced by culture, or in the case of Iraq, forged by war and religion.

There are two items that keep me engaged in this pursuit, even in the darkest days in Iraq. The first is the absolute conviction that whatever looms ahead is better than what came before. That does not mean there will not be days, or weeks, or even years where we witness two steps back for every tentative step forward. Regardless of where that journey leads, it leads away from the mass murder of the state against its own people. For all the violence in Iraq today, it is violence against the government, not violence committed by the government. It's a small step towards legitimacy, but it is a step forward.

The second item that keeps me engaged is my belief in the central tenet of the Bush Doctrine, as annunciated in his second inaugural address: America thrives when other nations are free. Moreover, America *needs* other free nations in order to stay free itself.

When we had oceans to protect us-- or the rigid international system of the Cold War-- it did not matter if the nation we did business with was democratic or totalitarian. We could either ignore them, or deal with them in a purely pragmatic sense. They were *states*, not people, and all states, good or bad, have interests. We could support Iraq against Iran because we knew Iran was the worse enemy. I'm a balance of power junkie-- I recognize the allure, not to mention the sometimes awful necessity, of the phrase "the enemy of the enemy is my friend."

Yet, here is where I disagree with Ace, who falls a bit too much for the realpolitik school: 9/11 changed all that. Actually, it had been changing for thirty years, and all because of the growth of terrorism. All of a sudden, we were not dealing with nation-states any more, but the products of those nation-states: evil men, born and bred under tyranny, who either fought in the spirit of their tyranny, or in resentment against it (like our spoiled Saudi brat Bin Laden).

We could afford to ignore this threat for a long time, because in the end, a car bomb is a nuisance. There are a lot more of us than there are of them. Time marches on.

But so does technology.

The car bomb gets replaced by sarin. The assassin's bullet gets replaced with the anthrax envelope. And eventually, the nuclear weapon trumps them all.

Suddenly, our enemies threaten to acquire the means to fight well above their weight. Whereas before we could ignore them-- so what if the Shah treats his people badly, what's the worse they can do, take hostages?-- today, we ignore them at the risk of our very civilization.

You can't deter them. You can kill a lot of them, but at best, that's a holding action. The only available alternative is to go to the source, the breeding ground-- the failed states that breed evil men.

Would I like it if the Iraqis could live in freedom, so they could eat ice cream and cheer their football team and pray to whichever God they want, all without fearing a knock on the door? Of course I would. But I would much rather have an Iraq that lives in enough freedom to realize that other free nations are no threat to them.

Again, no one in America fears Germany or Japan, despite us losing hundreds of thousands of lives in wars against them. It's not just because America is a special place, a charitable nation. It's because all of these democracies have much better things to do with their time than fight each other.

So far, Russia seems to be struggling. Yet, even there we do not fear them. Well, okay, I do, but only because I fear the prospect of chaos in a nation with thousands of nuclear weapons all easily aimed at America in a short matter of time. But on a daily basis, who here thinks of Russia? Who here fears Russia? When they were a totalitarian regime, we never quite knew what to expect. Rulers who can commit violence against their own people have few moral restrictions against committing violence against others. Hence our fear.

In the Middle East, we can't invade every nation. But no one is suggesting that we do, or that we should. Yet, when it comes time to talk to Egypt, a traditional "friend" of ours, there's no longer a reason for pulling our punches, for soft-pedaling our demands. Ditto Saudi Arabia. And especially ditto Iran and Syria. We can demand more of them, because we must-- even if it takes decades for these societies to emerge into freedom, that process must occur if we are to eliminate the threat of mass terror.

And, if it's going to be such a long process, what better time to begin than the present?

This posting was made on my personal computer.

"It's because all of these democracies have much better things to do with their time than fight each other."

That's a new angle on the demcoratic peace theory. We know democracies don't fight each other. But I don't think we know why they don't fight each other.

And I think it's important to have a really good idea of why democracies don't fight each other before we go basing a foreign policy around it. After all, there haven't been two functioning Arab democracies side by side long enough to see whether the democratic peace holds true for Islam.

That caveat aside I agree with you. As I said on Ace's site, countries learn how to be democratic by being democratic, and sometimes they suck at it. But this is a trial and error process. We had some real wackos at the beginning too; think about what would have happened had they listened more closely to Jefferson or to Tom Paine! Americans and Europeans are spoiled by stability. Stability comes later; democracy comes first.
**Suddenly, our enemies threaten to acquire the means to fight well above their weight. Whereas before we could ignore them.**

This is a superb point.

I was disappointed with Peggy's comments. She sounded wounded, like someone who resented being left out of the presidential-speech-writers loop. I resent the comparison between LBJ's war on poverty with Gw's war on tyranny. I think we can win the war on tyranny. And we haven't done too shabby with the war on poverty. We've created a society where just a smidgen of determination can lift you out of poverty. I say that is victory.

This war is can be won. We've shown we can do it one state at a time. Who can tell me that we've lost the "war on tyranny" in Germany? WE WON THAT WAR. How bout Japan? No tyranny there. One state at a time. slow and steady.

Imagine how much faster we could do it if the rest of the world joined us.

Hans, I hope there's a tipping point out there--where we get enough democracies in the world that it becomes harder and harder to remain one of the "outposts of tyranny", to use Condi Rice's phrase.

But I'm afraid it moves in waves, per Huntington (and Larry Diamond). Democracy advances all over the world, and then retreats to a few tidal pools (like the USA).And we're actually in the trough right now, though maybe it's turned. I hope we're not just casting spears into the tide.
great post. as usual.
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