Sunday, December 29, 2002

Oxblog's David Adesnik, and Reuel Marc Gerecht (whose opinions I usually agree with) in the Weekly Standard, are both concerned that the Bush administration might be wavering in its commitment to establishing democracy in the Middle East. Gerecht complains that "the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, William Burns, articulates counterterrorist, not democratic, priorities", and suggests that the region's despots "probably ruminate on how good it is to rule in an age when non-Muslims show such deference to the culture and traditions--many of which arrived via London, Paris, and Berlin--that give them unchallenged dominion." Adesnik is even more blunt: "As a passionate advocate of promoting democracy in the Middle East, I am often told to get real. Don't I know that Muslims can't handle democracy?....I'm not giving in. The desire for freedom is universal."

Now, ICBW readers know that I am second to none in my enthusiasm for democracy--in the Middle East or anywhere else. And I sincerely hope that it takes that benighted region of the world by storm as soon as possible. But if the universal desire for freedom were the only prerequisite for its establishment, then one might have expected it to have appeared in the wild on a large scale before a couple of centuries ago, and certainly to be the overwhelmingly predominant system of government in the world by now.

In truth, nobody really knows how or why democracy succeeds in some places and not others. There appear to be certain positively correlated factors: widespread affluence and literacy; political and social stability; a large, established professional and commercial middle class; past experience (however perfunctory) with democratic forms and procedures; a culture of religious moderation. But clearly not all of these are necessary, nor are they all sufficient (which does Singapore lack?). All we can say is that based on the current and historical records of most of the countries in the modern Middle East, the prognosis for their democratic evolution is, well, not stupendously encouraging.

That's not to say, of course, that the US should simply abandon the whole region to groan under the inevitable yoke of brutal tyranny. Encouragement--rhetorical, political, financial, even military--towards liberalization of the area's authoritarian regimes would certainly be the geopolitical equivalent of a good deed, in those cases where it is likely to succeed in fostering real democratization. However, Gerecht and Adesnik seem to assume that it would invariably succeed, and is therefore always correct policy. Unfortunately, it is more often than not likely simply to fail, sometimes with serious adverse policy consequences for America.

Gerecht mentions Algeria, for instance, as a country whose ruthless military dictatorship benefits conspicuously from American willingness to indulge repression in return for cooperation against terrorism. What Gerecht does not mention, of course, is that Algeria was on the verge a few years ago of voting a radical Islamic theocracy into office--completely democratically, in a free and fair election--and was prevented from doing so only by the military takeover that resulted in the current regime. Had the US successfully intervened back then to protect the inchoate democratic process there, Algerians would probably not be better off today for their state having been forcibly Islamicized, and America would certainly be in a worse position as a result.

In Afghanistan, and probably soon in Iraq, the US will be faced with a similar choice. It can try to cobble together a not-too-horrible candidate government, perhaps organizing some kind of democratic ratification process, and then step back and let the nearly-inevitable authoritarianization occur; or it can pour billions of dollars, thousands of personnel, and years of effort and attention into trying to build resilient democratic institutions pretty much from scratch. Of course, an Afghanistan or Iraq ready for EU membership would be a wonderful thing, and probably an excellent boost for American interests abroad, as well. But if the whole project's likelihood of success is virtually nil, as I suspect it will be, then it can't possibly be worth the investment.

It is important to note that the realism I'm advocating is by no means equivalent to cynical, callous pursuit of American self-interest. On the contrary, freeing Afghans from Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, and freeing Iraqis from Saddam Hussein, are supremely selfless acts of kindness, for which those respective inhabitants ought to be hugely grateful (though, realistically, they almost certainly won't be for long, if at all). To paraphrase the Talmud, it is not America's task to finish the job of creating paradise on earth; it suffices for them to contribute to it. And one can do so without necessarily converting the entire Middle East into a second Scandinavia; for many of the region's countries (and people), even Jordan or Tunisia would be a major step up.

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