Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Democratic Quandary

I normally don't think much of CBS's Dick Meyer's work but his piece today on the problem of democracy within the Muslim world is thoughtful, balanced, and ought to sober up those who think democracy is the solution to all the world's problems. His deconstruction of several myths about the region is also wrong in a few ways. I'll have something on it later today but in the meantime, here's an excerpt:

The current round of violence was partially but substantially caused by America's campaign for Arab democracy.

Obviously, since the administration's democracy campaign is primarily public relations, the Bush doctrine could not be a material cause of the current war.

Bush's opponents on the left ingenuously are trying to blame Bush for the current crisis. So are some of his conservative critics, like George Will, though with more honesty, if not accuracy. The argument goes like this: Hamas gained state-based power through semi-legitimate Palestinian elections encouraged by the Bush Doctrine. Hezbollah gained power because a genuine popular protest — the so-called Cedar Revolution — pushed Syrian military forces out of Lebanon, leaving a power vacuum in the south for Hezbollah to fill; Hezbollah then won parliamentary seats and thus legitimacy in free elections supposedly fostered by the Bush doctrine. This vastly overstates the power administration's magic wand of democracy has in the region.

More fundamentally, Hezbollah and Hamas clearly don't need elections to help them kill Israelis and continue a crusade to annihilate the Zionist state. That is their whole mission.

Can free elections and the political openness they entail be destabilizing? Of course. Can totalitarian, theocratic or tyrannical parties paradoxically gain power or legitimacy through democracy and open elections? Of course. Should the United States be the one to balance these competing pressures in other countries and regions? Of course not. America must pursue its interests and security and not be so un-humble as to decide what other nations "ought" to want — that is actually the classic American conservative foreign policy.

Arab and Muslim nations and peoples are not "ready" for democracy.

This is a matter of great debate, and intellectually it's a fascinating issue. President Bush for years has argued it is a form of racism or prejudice to think that Iraqis, Muslims or Arabs are not "ready" for democracy. He believes democracy is good for everyone. Others believe that certain societies, many of them Muslim, are not ready for democracy. They think that forcing democracy onto a society that isn't ready for it is dangerous, as proven by today's fighting.

The mistake here is in thinking about democracy anthropologically, even biologically. Democracy is not a human capacity like sadness or empathy. Democracy is an invention; it is an idea and a practice.