Saturday, November 17, 2007

Democracy Hypocrisy?

Are critics of the Bush Administration hypocrites for criticizing the President's failure to stand firmly on the side of democracy in Pakistan after many of those same critics earlier criticized the President's naivete in thinking that bringing democracy to the Middle East would advance the strategic interests of the United States in the region? So say some Administration defenders but they're mostly wrong.

The leading examples of the administration's problematic efforts to support democracy in the Middle East are Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Let's consider them in turn. Iraq, which is by far the largest effort, is problematic for two chief reasons. First, the invasion of Iraq was not justified to the American public as an effort to bring democracy but as pre-emptive self-defense. Democracy was one of the post-hoc rationalizations offered after Iraq proved to have no WMDs, and even then, there are reasons to doubt that it was ever a real justification. Second, there is a huge difference between saying---as critics of the Administration's coddling of Musharraf say---that the U.S. government should temper its support for an authoritarian ruler who does everything in his power to suppress democracy, and saying that democracy cannot be imposed through the use of military force.

To be sure, as to the second point, the critics are wrong if this is meant as a universal truth. The successful use of military force and military occupation pretty much did lead to democracy in post-WWII Japan and Germany, but this brings us to a different point. Democracy is not simply the holding of elections. The principal criticism of the Bush pro-democracy efforts in the Middle East is that it equated elections with democracy. Thus, it is hardly surprising that in places with few robust civil society institutions other than religious ones, elections would lead to victories by parties that are not, broadly speaking, democratic. The administration's approach to the elections in Lebanon and Palestine might have had some greater chance of success if there had been greater support for the other institutions of democracy (and if the secular alternatives were not widely perceived as corrupt and weak).

The contrast with Pakistan is stark. Pakistan has an educated professional class that supports liberal democracy (which is not to say that they are especially sympathetic to U.S. foreign policy, but that's another matter). Support for democracy in Pakistan would not have meant demanding elections in a country without the civil society institutions to go along with it. Support for democracy would have meant conditioning the billions in aid to Musharraf's regime on such basic principles as respect for the independence of the judiciary and the press.

In fairness to the Bush administration, it's not clear how much leverage we ever would have had with Musharraf, but the critics have a point that we don't know the answer because the Bush administration didn't even make an effort.

On the broader question of whether to support democracy in other parts of the world, I do want to register a tiny bit of support for the administration's intentions. The best that can be said for their policies, I think, is that they misapplied a laudable principle. In the 1990s, then-PM of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew famously argued that Western-style democracy was inconsistent with "Asian values," which supposedly favored a more authoritarian style of governance. Western liberals and many Asian liberals rightly rejected this claim as just so much rationalization.

I suspect that some of the idea people in the Bush administration thought that resistance to rapid democratization of the Middle East was simply an echo of the Asian values ruse. They thought that Islamic and Arab culture could coexist with democracy, and that a contrary position is patronizing. (You can see hear a cousin of Bush's approach to education and the denunciation of the "soft bigotry of low expectations.")

The problem is that a culture that is theoretically hospitable to democracy won't become actually hospitable to it simply by holding elections. Just as the administration thought that simply toppling Saddam would lead to a new stable liberal democratic state in Iraq, without paying any attention to the complex task of rebuilding, so more broadly the administration naively thought that elections were a magic bullet. They're not.

Posted by Mike Dorf

18 comments:

egarber said...

I think it's perfectly logical -- and accurate -- to say that our foreign policy should encourage democracy, but that it can't be imposed militarily.

Ironically, in my view the best vehicle for fostering democratic change in the Middle East is world movement away from oil as an energy source.

Though China is catching up, the U.S. represents 25% of world oil demand, which drives up prices and keeps in place the very anti-democratic regimes we'd like to topple. And it's getting worse. Unfriendly governments that are now plush with oil revenues are heading AWAY from liberalized economic systems -- favoring instead agressive nationalism of industry.

If the world were to leave oil, these regimes would lose hold of power, because those economies would have to diversify. Through this dynamic, we'd see the growth of more liberal regulatory institutions -- the seeds for true democratic reform.

So in addition to being a critical way to confront global warming and terrorism (we're paying for both sides of the "war"), getting off oil is *also* a crucial means of spreading democracy in that part of the world.

Carl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
egarber said...

Carl, thanks for the reply.

On the economic question, the idea is that without central economic control via oil wealth, those economies must either modernize or fail (as you say).

The hope is that the region can transition the way China has economically. I think I read that 70% of China's GDP is now in the private sector, creating a fairly liberated business and middle class. At this point the communist leadership couldn't clamp down even if it wanted to (imo), given the strengthening economic diversity. Granted, China will never be a Jeffersonian democracy, and it still has an atrocious record in some areas of human rights, free speech, etc. But as its economy becomes more tied to ours, I think newer generations will continue to push reforms that create improvements in these areas. I think we may even see a point where economic modernization leads to the end of one-party rule.

I acknowledge that the Middle East brings with it a unique cultural challenge. But I also think that if the region is ever to liberalize, it will come through economic evolution -- where property rights and connection with the world create at least a tolerable version of the institutions Mike defends. In my view, economic liberation is the only chance (hence my oil argument).

Carl said...

egarber wrote:

But I also think that if the region is ever to liberalize, it will come through economic evolution -- where property rights and connection with the world create at least a tolerable version of the institutions Mike defends

I am in complete agreement with this. I am perhaps slightly less sanguine about the likelihood that the economies of these nations could survive the loss of oil revenue, at least as they exist now, but I realized in retrospect that you probably had in mind a gradual reduction in our dependence on foreign oil rather than some complete and immediate embargo or cold war, which is why I tried to delete my post and save you the reply (for anyone who might be interested, I raised a concern that "economic warfare" (which is what I took egarber to be advocating) would no more guarantee the emergence of a democratic regime than military intervention, particularly where the economy was devastated in the process).

Carl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
egarber said...

As another quick note here, it's possible to see an evolving model for such change through the actions of Dubai.

Not only is the government trying to create a viable Middle Eastern market exchange, it's also planning IPO's for companies like DP World (the ports operator).

The hope among economists is that we're seeing the first wave of potential privatization.

Busting up corrupt regimes by devaluing oil can further this change, if (as Carl implicitly says) the move is coupled with financial support and other efforts to ease the transitional pain.

Sobek said...

I'm curious to know what, exactly, constitutes democracy.

Back when the Iraqis first started having elections (which were wildly successful, and almost completely free of violence), the leftist criticism was that the country was still too violent. Now that violence is sharply down, we have folks like Jack Murtha arguing that military success has nothing to do with victory.

That kind of goalpost moving, combined with Harry Reid's refusal to fund counter-IED efforts, makes it really hard to take administration criticism seriously.

Sobek said...

"...hard to take administration criticism seriously."

On this issue, I should clarify. Virtually any other issue, you're fine.

Sobek said...

To the extent that democracy consists of voting with one's feet, Iraq appears to be progressing nicely. About 1000 Iraqi refugees are returning from Syria per day:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7105216.stm

Even the UN has noticed:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/iraq/article2910440.ece#cid=OTC-RSS&attr=797093

egarber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
egarber said...

Sobek,

I'm of course hopeful that these are real trends. However, we need to remember at least two things here:

1. Whatever the short-term numbers mean, 2007 has still been the deadliest year yet for American soldiers.

2. Refugees may be returning in part because of better security, but according to one story you posted, they're also in quite a bind -- those who are returning tend to be very poor. I think there's a large economic necessity / desperation dynamic at play.

But more importantly, I don't think the "goalposts are being moved" at all by those who have sincerely criticized our policy. For a long while now, there's been a steady message coming from many realists (from both parties): without political reconciliation, there can be no working democracy in Iraq. Indeed, I'd say that given the Shia / Sunni history in the region, without reconciliation there can't even be long-term security. Our generals have constantly said that there is no military solution.

Therefore, given the absence of real political progress, my sense is that this is merely a temporary hiatus of insurgency / civil war activity (if that). IMO, it is a huge mistake to think it means democracy is somehow taking hold because of the "surge." And in the wider frame, I'm convinced our presence there is creating more 9/11-flavor terrorists throughout that part of the world than it's destroying.

Now I'll grant you that W has a better chance at fostering agreement in Iraq if violence temporarily subsides -- but he's not making any substantive efforts to bring the interested regional parties together.

We have to remember that there really isn't much nationalist pride in Iraq (at least not in the sense we understand it); Shias have always seen "nationalism" as Sunni Arab propaganda -- and that's partly why we're seeing Iraqis choose sect loyalty over any national allegiance.

egarber said...

Shias have always seen "nationalism" as Sunni Arab propaganda -- and that's partly why we're seeing Iraqis choose sect loyalty over any national allegiance.

This was too sloppy on my part. I should have said that Shias feel betrayed by Arab nationalism, not nationalism per se.

Sobek said...

"... and that's partly why we're seeing Iraqis choose sect loyalty over any national allegiance."

Even there, the trend is moving in the right direction:

http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSL2156942820071121

"More than 300,000 Iraqis including 600 Shi'ite tribal leaders have signed a petition accusing Iran of sowing "disorder" in southern Iraq, a group of sheikhs involved in the campaign said."

I don't want to just come in here and spam the threads with Good News From Iraq stories. I will point out that the stories are becoming so frequent that I've stopped reading them, and I only skim the headlines.

When even Clinton and Obama acknowledge the shifting trend, you know we must be on to something:

http://justoneminute.typepad.com/main/2007/11/scrambling-defe.html

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