Blogs > Liberty and Power > To Be or Not To Be ... Democracy?

Nov 15, 2004 8:39 am

To Be or Not To Be ... Democracy?

I found two very interesting essays in the NY Times this weekend, the second almost a response to the first. In Robert Kagan's essay,"We Broke It, We Bought It," a review of Noah Feldman's book, What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building, he writes:

Feldman's most important quality ... may have been his deep belief in the compatibility of Islam and democracy. He belongs to a small but growing movement among scholars of Islam, a group diverse enough to include Gilles Kepel of France and Reuel Marc Gerecht of the United States, that believes the real promise of democracy lies with devout Muslims. In Feldman's first book, ''After Jihad,'' published just before he left for Iraq, he argued that the desire for democracy is widespread among Muslim believers, much more than the desire for violent jihad, and that Islamists should therefore be given a chance to rule. ...
[I]t's not only the Iraqis who have an interest in Iraqi democracy, Feldman says. The United States and Europe have for too long erred both morally and strategically in supporting authoritarian governments in the Arab world. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, Islamist terrorists ''have long been motivated by their grievances against the authoritarian states in which they live.'' Feldman points out that it was a ''cadre of Egyptian Islamist terrorists, defeated and thus displaced from their traditional battle against the Egyptian state in the 1990's,'' who ''joined forces with Osama bin Laden to create Al Qaeda.'' The answer to the threat of Islamic terrorism, he says, is to engage in nation-building ''aimed at creating democratically legitimate states that would treat their citizens with dignity and respect.''
While many argue that the Iraqis are not ready for democracy, Feldman insists it is the only system that can work. Without exaggerating what elections can accomplish, he makes a practical point often overlooked by skeptics. The diverse complexion of Iraqi society, he observes, means that no single group has the power to impose peace and stability. In order to succeed, an Iraqi government must be accepted as roughly legitimate by a broad cross section of Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis. But how can American officials or any outsiders, or even any Iraqi, know what the people will consider legitimate without asking them? Democracy, Feldman writes, is ''not merely the best political arrangement,'' it is ''the only option other than chaos.'' It helps that Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani appears to be the kind of Muslim leader Feldman is counting on: a Shiite cleric who by word and deed has so far proven himself sincerely committed to democracy. One gets the sense that Feldman and Sistani were tacit allies in pushing for an Iraqi state that can be both Islamic and free.

Feldman admits that there have been many"American mistakes," but he's hopeful that democracy will come.

How can such political institutions emerge, however, when we are dealing with what Robert D. Kaplan calls,"Barren Ground for Democracy"? Kaplan proceeds on the premise that"while democracy can take root anywhere, ... it cannot be imposed overnight anywhere." He writes of the U.S. occupation of Iraq:

What we are witnessing is a legacy of history and geography—factors often denied by both liberal and conservative interventionists—catching up with America. Had our political leaders considered such factors, I suspect, they might have avoided some of the disasters of the occupation. These factors should also give President Bush pause as he plans to"spread freedom" in his second term. ... [T]he idea that Western-style democracy could be imposed further east and south, in the Balkans, has proved ... problematic. Beyond the Carpathian mountains one finds a different historical legacy: that of the poorer and more chaotic Ottoman Empire. Before World War II, this was a world of vast peasantries and feeble middle classes, which revealed itself in Communist governments that were for the most part more corrupt and despotic than those of Central Europe. Unsurprisingly, upon Communism's collapse, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania struggled for years on the brink of anarchy, although they at least avoided ethnic bloodshed. Of course, Yugoslavia was not so lucky. Though democracy appears to have a reasonably bright future there thanks to repeated Western intervention, it is wise to recall that for 15 years it has been a touch-and-go proposition.
Undeterred, Wilsonian idealists in the United States next put Iraq on their list for gun-to-the-head democratization. But compared with Iraq, even the Balkans were historically blessed, by far the most culturally and politically advanced part of the old Turkish Empire. Mesopotamia, on the other hand, constituted the most anarchic and tribalistic region of the sultanate. ... Iraq is bordered by Iran and Syria, states with weakly policed borders and prone to radical politics, which themselves have suffered under absolutism for centuries. Western intellectuals on both the left and right underplayed such realities. In the 1990's, those supporting humanitarian intervention in Yugoslavia branded references to difficult history and geography as"determinism" and"essentialism"—academic jargon for fatalism. In the views of liberal internationalists and neoconservatives, group characteristics based on a shared history and geography no longer mattered, for in a post-cold war world of globalization everyone was first and foremost an individual. Thus if Poland, say, was ready overnight for Western-style democracy, then so too were Bosnia, Russia, Iraq—and Liberia, for that matter. ...
By invading Iraq, Republican neoconservatives—the most fervent of Wilsonians—simply took that liberal idealist argument ... to its logical conclusion. Indeed, given that Saddam Hussein was ultimately responsible for the violent deaths of several times more people than the Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic, how could any liberal in favor of intervention in the Balkans not also favor it in the case of Iraq? And because the human rights abuses in Iraq showed no sign of abatement, much like those in the Balkans, our intervention was justified in order to stop an ongoing rape-and-killing machine.
But rather than a replay of the Balkans in 1995 and 1999, Iraq has turned out like the Indian mutiny against the British in 1857 and 1858, when the attempts of Evangelical and Utilitarian reformers in London to modernize and Christianize India—to make it more like England—were met with a violent revolt against imperial rule. Delhi, Lucknow and other cities were besieged and captured, before being retaken by colonial forces. The bloody debacle did not signal the end of the British Empire, which expanded for another century. But it did signal a transition: away from an ad hoc imperium fired by an intemperate lust to impose domestic values abroad, and toward a calmer, more pragmatic empire built on international trade and technology. ...

I recommend both articles to your attention.

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