November 6, 2003

Whose democracy?


Let's take the word ' democracy.' If there's anything we should know from experience, the term is most imprecise, as it refers to a political tradition and school of civil order rather than to an exact concept. Arguments over 'how much democracy' various nations, especially the United States, enjoy have been raging since their inception and show no sign of slowing down. What form of democracy, then, is our President looking to install in the Middle East?

I can't really answer that, despite relatively careful reading of the public policy statements coming out of the administration - because they're careful not to go into specifics. So that route to explaining my deep-seated uneasiness with this policy may be a non-starter. Let's try something else, something that bothers me.

The United States was established as a democracy in 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the completion (if not full ratification) of the Constitution a few years later. It has evolved into what George Bush (presumably) is holding up as a model for these other nations to emulate, in spirit if not form. However, if one looks carefully at the 'Democrats' of the early United States, it becomes clear that they resided in and presided over a system which if anything would simply exacerbate the societal pressures and problems which are being expressed as anti-American sentiments. Consider: In that democracy, the vote was limited to property-owning white males. Women need not have applied, nor anyone of color. Is this the form of democracy George Bush would like to see emplaced?

While it may be easy to say that we could expect to press a more 'advanced' form of democracy on these peoples and states, consider that it took the United States nearly a hundred years, and its most ruinous war, just to abolish slavery within its borders - slavery based essentially on racial discrimination. It took roughly another hundred to strike down Jim Crow - and this was in the most advanced democracy available.

Can one really'jump over' that painful part of the democratic evolution and tell or ask a people or state to adopt the 'end state' that we have arrived at over two hundred years of internal disagreement to the point of armed struggle? I contend that it is unrealistic. The democracy we have now, far from perfect (and, some would say, far from working even) is, whatever else it is, the result of those two centuries of evolution in the institutions prevalent in the U.S. and its people. The people are what matter. Even now, there are large groups who will, if given the chance and in some cases anonymity, explain that they remain convinced that equality among races is a bad idea, and Bad For America. While it is a sign of our progress (I believe) that they increasingly will only admit this when anonymous, it's an extremely sobering reminder of the constant fight that democracy requires in order to make it viable.

Daily, we have to fight for it. If we slack off too hard, we end up with John Ashcroft, Joe McCarthy and his modern-day Pollyana, Coulter; we end up with David Duke, and we end up with Al Sharpton and Malcolm X. We end up with extremists on both sides attempting to hurry the evolution of our society through force, as well as those who would simply mire us through unswerving conservatism. It's our fault that Ashcroft and cronies are in charge of our civil life; both those of us that voted for Bush and company and those of us who didn't fight hard enough because we believed that (for example) "nobody would elect someone that stupid."

In any case, back to the Middle East. We are now being told that this endeavour (I shudder to use the term Crusade, because some of the architects of the misadventure seem to apply that term with relish) as an attempt by the U.S. to 'show the region what democracy means.' My classmate Ken Pollack said today on CNN:

"Whether you wanted to go into Iraq or not, whether you thought it was right or not, the simple fact of the matter is, that the entire region, the entire Middle East is now watching to see what unfolds in Iraq.

For the longest time, they basically had two options. They had the autocracy offered by their government and they had the Islamic republics offered by the Islamic fundamentalists. And here comes the United States and says, "We've got another idea. We've got another way of doing things, and that's democratization."

The U.S. is trying to do that now in Iraq. We're doing it with 130,000 troops and 100 billion of our own dollars. The rest of the region is watching to see if it succeeds. And if it succeeds, there is the chance that others will start to accept and start to move in that direction. If it fails, every Arab is going to look at it and say, the Americans tried, they tried with $100 billion, and 13,000 troops, and if it can't work in Iraq, there's on way it can work here. "

CNN 11/06/03

Much as I respect Ken's smarts and experience (which, in this field, are nearly unparalleled) I have to take issue with some of his points. For one, it's difficult to look at this effort as a 'third option for the peoples of the region' - which he implies - when it's happening as the result of a foreign conquest initiated by the U.S. For this to 'work' in his terms, the people watching who wanted to try it would have to somehow maneuver the U.S. into taking down their government and then being willing to spend the $100 billion on their nation as well.

While I don't think it would be a bad investment at all to spend the money if there was a decent chance of a positive return (positive in the sense that a more eqalitarian society based on more liberal principles emerged, not necessarily positive in the narrow U.S. National Interest sense) I have to question the viability of this course. Even if we succeed in this particular case in offering the Iraqi people a viable choice of a working democratic/capitalist social, economic and political system and they accept that choice and put such a system in place, maintaining it themselves...then we still need to ask: what made it palatable for the Iraqi people to accept now, at this time?

Was it simply that they needed the repressive force of the Ba'athists removed before they could make that choice? Or was it that the system was forced on them in such a way that it still doesn't fit right despite glowing reviews? Or that adopting the system was tied to such immediate needs as working infrastructure, food, water and medicine that it wasn't really a 'choice' at all?

And then, even if Iraq comes out of this as a functioning Western-style democracy, how sure would we be that these conditions also exist in other nations in the area, and that they would be tappable without first spending a couple of years and billions of dollars bombing the existing government structures into remission?

This isn't really fair to Ken Pollack, who was asked to respond narrowly to the President's speech. Ken did mention, later on, that there is a real onus on the U.S. and the President as our symbol and leader to prove that 'we really mean it this time and we're not going to leave you swinging.' While it's heartening to hear that our past failures or abandoned efforts are not forgotten in all camps, it raises another problem in my mind - that of entanglement.

Even here, in the position of an analyst that I in general respect and agree with, and even in his 'best case,' we now have a situation in which it is becoming more and more difficult to extricate the United States and its military from the day-to-day operations of the Iraqi nation. The President has successfully, by invoking the goal of democratizaion, tied the American people's faith in and loyalty to their system's ostensible political ideas to a continued presence in Iraq. No matter what happens, now, he can point to this speech and say "But are you going to let these setbacks deter you in the quest for democracy?"

That's a blatant and dangerous hijacking of American political will. Why? Because we were not asked this question before the war began. This was not part of the original reasons stated for going into Iraq! Therefore, no matter what the 'justness' or 'goodness' of this reason for continued U.S. occupation, the mere invocation of this reason alone is a corruption of the process by which we, the United States and its citizens, are supposed to decide how to wield the power of this country we've built.

The converse of authority is responsibility. It's difficult for the American people to induce their government to act responsibly when they are not given correct, proper or complete information on how and why the government is acting in the first place.

Moving back to Iraq specifically, I'd like to take up a thread I previously 'straw man'ned out of sight. What if, in fact, the acceptance of a modern U.S. style democracy actually is predicated on the experiences that the U.S. and U.S. citizens and society have had over the past 200 years? If that was the case, then we couldn't really expect anything better than a Jeffersonian democracy in the best case - one of privileged, homogenous, misogynist definitions of 'who matters.' Is that what we want? I had thought that the 'other option' (thank you, Ken) of Islamic fundamentalist republics was undesirable in part because it involved all of those characteristics. Perhaps a society has to 'decide' for itself to move past value systems of that manner in order to operate under rules of the game such as those we take for granted today.

So, if that's true (and all I am noting is that we don't know it's not) then the notion of 'democratizing' Iraq, in our image or otherwise, is extremely unlikely to succeed, perhaps even not for any opposition directed at us - it may just be structurally incompatible. Certainly, the recipe of economic prosperity and modern technogy coupled with strong defensive and economic ties to the United States hasn't moved Saudi Arabia past that critical point towards a 'democracy' - despite furious, vehement objections and loudly-parroted extolling of the U.S. - Saudi alliance by members of the House of Saud whenever anyone in the U.S. publicly begins to wonder at the structure and/or actions of that regime, which we support as it sits stop several million Arab MIddle Easterners.

I just can't help but think that our nation, our military, and our people have been sucked into what is essentially a game stacked against us with widespread and lethal consequences for not only failure, but even playing. Worse, that it has occurred strictly so that our President and his advisors can prevent or derail any debate over the initial decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place, rather than because of any actual belief in and solid plan for actual political change in the Middle East.

Posted by jbz at November 6, 2003 3:01 PM
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