Friday, January 28, 2005

A Second Look At Democratization

In light of the expansive, and commendable, rhetoric regarding the concepts of freedom and liberty punctuating the Bush inaugural address (perhaps flawed in certain strategic respects like it's focus on "liberty" instead of "justice"), I wanted to challenge, or at least examine, some of the emerging conventional wisdom on the effects of "democratization" and how it relates to the containment, control, and spread of terrorism.

First, I want to say that I believe in promoting the spread of democracy throughout the world, allowing for slightly different manifestations depending on the locale. I believe that democracy, and the rule of law, are the best guarantors of human rights that humanity has come up with to date. Critics of democracy-philes are quick to point out its imperfections, and it is a system that is far from flawless, but I ask that such critics point to a better model. A theocracy? Totalitarianism? Monarchy? Oligarchy? Are any of those more desirable? Could and would the critic be willing to live under such a regime? Or is it an opinion, ripe with self-indulgent intellectualization, made possible only from the comfortable vantage point that living under a liberal democracy allows? As such, I believe that promoting democracy, and with it human rights and the rule of law, can be justified on moral and ethical grounds regardless of its utility from a foreign policy perspective.

Nevertheless, in a world of limited resources, and exigent problems, democratization must be looked at using cost-benefit models - saying nothing of the morality of the means by which we seek to promote democracy (as I have
argued before, military conquest is not a particularly successful model for democracy promotion in practice, and it raises a whole slew of ethical questions to boot). This is a slightly touchy subject because democracy has been heralded as a cure to terrorism of panacean proportions. In fact, according to some in influential positions, all that is needed is for democracy to take root in the epicenter of Iraq, and it well spread outward in democratic shockwaves that will raze the jihadist mentality and ideology along with so many despots and dictators. Therefore, let's take a closer look at the ability of democracy to end terrorism as practiced by certain Muslim extremists, and how efficient the democratization model really is.

Is Middle East Democracy the Cure for Islamist Terrorism?

Your Right Hand Thief recently linked to an op-ed piece penned by Mark Halperin (himself a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq) appearing in the Wall Street Journal (no subscription required). In it, Halperin challenges the theory that democracy is an antidote to terrorism, and the likelihood of the "domino effect":
But no law of nature says a democracy is incapable of supporting terrorism, so even if every Islamic capital were to become a kind of Westminster with curlicues, the objective of suppressing terrorism might still find its death in the inadequacy of the premise. Even if all the Islamic states became democracies, the kind of democracies they might become might not be the kind of democracies wrongly presumed to be incapable of supporting terrorism. And if Iraq were to become the kind of democracy that is the kind wrongly presumed (and for more than a short period), there is no evidence whatsoever that other Arab or Islamic states, without benefit of occupying armies, would follow. And if they did, how long might it last? They do not need Iraq as an example, they have Britain and Denmark, and their problem is not that they require a demonstration, but rather their culture, history, and secret police.
That site's author, Mssr. Oyster, chimed in with an additional insight of no minor import:

And I'll add that even in a best case scenario, a "free" Iraq will work industriously to build or acquire WMD's. Just as Saddam cultivated the illusion of a WMD arsenal to make his "boxed in" country appear stronger, no Iraqi president will want to remain relatively defenseless between two nuclear neighbors, Israel and Iran-- both longtime enemies.
Considering the conclusions of the Duelfer Report, Oyster is probably correct when he suggests that even a democratic Iraq would want the security that nuclear weapons (or lesser WMD's) afford. Saddam realized their importance, and the reasons he had for acquiring them have only gotten more pressing, not less, through the recent passage of time. The Duelfer Report's assessment of Saddam's motive for acquiring WMD's:

Saddam recognized that the reconstitution of Iraqi WMD enhanced both his security and image...Iran was the pre-eminent motivator of this policy. All senior level Iraqi officials considered Iran to be Iraq's principal enemy in the region. The wish to balance Israel and acquire status and influence in the Arab world were also considerations, but secondary.
A very fine article in Foreign Policy magazine (now available online without a subscription!) also seeks to question the notion that democracy itself is the antidote to jihadism:

"Middle East Democracy Is the Cure for Islamist Terrorism"

No. This view is rooted in a simplistic assumption: Stagnant, repressive Arab regimes create positive conditions for the growth of radical Islamist groups, which turn their sights on the United States because it embodies the liberal sociopolitical values that radical Islamists oppose. More democracy, therefore, equals less extremism.

History tells a different story. Modern militant Islam developed with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1920s, during the most democratic period in that country's history. Radical political Islam gains followers not only among repressed Saudis but also among some Muslims in Western democracies, especially in Europe. The emergence of radical Islamist groups determined to wreak violence on the United States is thus not only the consequence of Arab autocracy. It is a complex phenomenon with diverse roots, which include U.S. sponsorship of the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s (which only empowered Islamist militants); the Saudi government's promotion of radical Islamic educational programs worldwide; and anger at various U.S. policies, such as the country's stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the basing of military forces in the region....

The experience of countries in different regions makes clear that terrorist groups can operate for sustained periods even in successful democracies, whether it is the Irish Republican Army in Britain or the ETA (Basque separatists) in Spain. The ETA gained strength during the first two decades of Spain's democratization process, flourishing more than it had under the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco. In fragile democratic states - as new Arab democracies would likely be for years - radical groups committed to violence can do even more harm, often for long periods, as evidenced by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, or the Maoist rebels in Nepal.
To the list of terrorist organizations that grew out of, and operated under, democratic regimes, we should also include the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader Meinhof gang in Germany, the 17th of November in Greece, Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, Tupac Amaru/Shining Path in Peru, FARC in Colombia, etc. And of course, even the paragon of democracy, the United States, has produced various terrorist separatist militias or racist terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. And Russia's move toward democratic reform has not lessened the terrorist threat emanating from Chechnyan rebels (in fact such terrorism is the pretext for Putin's repeal of democratic freedoms), nor has Turkey's openness helped to keep Kurdish terrorist groups at bay. Thus, the claim that democracy erodes terrorism is problematic if accepted outright. To quote a conversation on Matt Yglesias' site:

First Brian Ulrich:

...[P]eople turn to terrorism as a tactic because they can't achieve their goals through other means....By the same principle, the non-Muslims people like Bin Laden see as enemies can't be defeated by conventional military means. Therefore, people turn to terrorism. So there is something of a link. This does not mean that spreading democracy will end terrorism, because if the terrorists feel they still won't get their way, they'll continue to be terrorists. Abu Musab Zarqawi is making this point rather effectively in Iraq.
Then Matt Y:

...[P]eople with goals that cannot be achieved through the ballot box -- disputes involving ethnic or sectarian minorities figure prominently in this -- aren't going to be impressed by democracy. What I think it's important to emphasize, however, is...the simple fact that whatever forces of social alienation explain extremism's appeal, they're perfectly consistent with the existence of democracy as in France.
And Matt from a related post:

...[A] lot of your radicalized Arabs in the world are people of (mostly North African) Arab origin living in Europe and, especially, France with its large Muslim population. Whatever these people are so mad about, it's not that the country they live in isn't democratic. Many of them were born in Europe, or spent most of their lives there...

And this, after all, should come as no surprise. The terrorists of the IRA and the ETA (and whatever you call that Corsican terrorist group) live in democracies as well. The[y] object to the ground rules of democratic politics as practiced in Northern Ireland or Spain (or wherever) for what are basically unrelated reasons. Malaysia and Indonesia have given birth to more than there fair share of terrorists, and while neither quite counts as a fully paid-up member of the democratic brotherhood, both are far from being the most autocratic states in the Middle East. Indeed, harsh dictatorships like Syria and Iraq have barely generated any terrorists whatsoever, though the Syrian government maintains ties to Lebanese-born people involved in Hezbollah who retain a robust terrorism capacity. But the actual Hezbollah members are Lebanese, and while they certainly grew up under some adverse conditions (to offer and understatement) Lebanon has never been one of your more iron-fisted Arab dictatorships.

To make a long story short, the noteworthy and appalling lack of liberalism and democracy among Arab governments appears empirically to have only a tangential relationship to the actual psychology of jihad.
It is also worth mentioning that at the moment, direct elections in many nations in the Muslim world (such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt) might result in regimes that are far more hostile to our interests than the current incarnations. Simply put, unless we address the underlying sources of anger toward America (and this is not to suggest that they are all our fault - far from it - as we have become a convenient scapegoat and subject of many a an unfounded conspiracy theory in the region), democracy might unleash forces that are even more pernicious than what we are dealing with today.

From this, I argue that democracy is not the vanquisher of terrorism that some make it out to be, unfortunately. This does not mean that promoting democracy has no effect, or that it is futile. The spread of democracy will have an ameliorative effect, but we would be remiss if we did not also seek to address some of the underlying causes that exist outside of the nature of the prevailing political institutions. If those grievances are allowed to fester, democracy will not be able to put an end to terrorism on its own, and might even give rise to more problematic states in the short term.

Do Democratic Regimes Curtail Terrorist Activities Better Than Others?

Counter to the current group think, reality is also a mixed bag in this regard. Again from the Foreign Policy article:
Moreover, democracy is not a cure-all for terrorism. Like it or not, the most successful efforts to control radical Islamist political groups have been antidemocratic, repressive campaigns, such as those waged in Tunisia, Egypt, and Algeria in the 1990s. The notion that Arab governments would necessarily be more effective in fighting extremists is wishful thinking, no matter how valuable democratization might be for other reasons.
Ulrich argued that Syria and Iraq don't (or at least didn't in the case of Iraq before the invasion) produce domestic terrorists "because the level of state surveillance is so pervasive nothing could really get organized." Yglesias responded:

The best way to eradicate terrorism (construed as a non-state phenomenon) is to erect an all-pervasive semi-totalitarian dictatorship. Short of that, establishing true democracy undercuts some of terrorism's appeal by providing alternative methods of seeking political change.
Before you jump to conclusions, Yglesias and Ulrich were not advocating spreading the "Syria Model" of totalitarian repression. They were merely making the point, again, that our work does not end with the establishment of democracy even, as Halperin argued, if it were spread across the entire region in uninterrupted continuity. Ironically, the freedoms that democracy create can provide terrorists and radicals with more room to operate.

Limited Resources

As I argued above, promoting democracy is a worthy goal for moral and ethical reasons, and it does serve legitimate foreign policy objectives as well. Even if it not sufficient on its own to eradicate terrorism, it can and will help to relieve some of the pressures and frustrations that help to stoke the flames. I don't disagree with the message of Bush's inaugural in this regard - it really encapsulates everything I believe America does right (regardless of how well the rhetoric tracks our actions). But given the fact that invasions and nation building are so tremendously expensive from a fiscal point of view, and so costly in terms of strains on our alliances, negative impact on our image and popularity, and, relatedly, our ability to inspire the changes we are seeking to bring about, we need to really consider whether or not spreading democracy via military means is a feasible strategy - especially considering the fact that democracy itself will not, on its own, solve the intractable problems that lead to terrorist manifestations.

This is an especially acute concern when we factor in the effect that such war time spending (and tax cutting) is having on our economic stability, the
value of the dollar, our ability to deal with the emergence of rivals such as China, and our financial capacity to address other equally pressing concerns such as homeland security and the disposal of loose nuclear material poorly secured in the former Soviet republics. Mark Halperin laments some of the lost opportunities:

An impressive civil-defense effort has been made [referring to the Dept. of Homeland Security], but only relative to the absence of anything before it. It isn't a question of gaps in the fence here and there, but of sections of the fence here and there. Four and a half years after September 11th, air cargo is still not x-rayed; illegal immigration and drug smuggling prove that the borders are porous; simulated attacks are almost always a walk-over for the red-teams; and the nature of chemical, nuclear, and biological terrorism remains such that merely rattling terrorist networks is insufficient.

Uneven and ineffective application of military power, vulnerability to mass terrorism and natural epidemics, blindness to the rise of a great competitor: matters like these, that may seem remote and abstract, are seldom as remote and abstract as they seem. A hundred years ago, our predecessors, unable to sense what had already begun, did not know the price they would pay as the century wore on. But, as the century wore on, that price was exacted without mercy.
In truth, democracy promotion should be married to other efforts, and the paradigm of spreading democracy through military campaign should be seriously re-thought before we begin parts two and three in Syria and Iran. There are other means to utilize in order to effect the desired outcome which have been grossly neglected due to the all-consuming demands of the military endeavor.

Assuming our President was sincere in his recitation of our nation's goals for the next four years, I hope that he applies a serious dose of realism and realignment of priorities, not to mention some non-bellicose measures, to the admirable idealistic message he put forth. In closing, I offer the sage advice of praktike writing at
Liberals Against Terrorism (in the interest of full disclosure, I have recently joined the LAT team):

Untempered idealism is a wonderful thing in freshly minted college graduates. However, in a President, what you want is someone who can tell the difference between words and action, between rhetoric and reality. Personally, I don't care much for Kennedy as a President, although he was an excellent orator. His "pay any price, bear any burden" formulation was touching, but neither serious nor particularly useful. He showed admirable judgment during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but was an unimpresive leader otherwise. The Bay of Pigs and Vietnam come to mind.

Nathan...assumes that I'm talking about Uzbekistan when I refer to Dictatorship and Double Standards. Not really. Uzbekistan is a problem, but it is not the reason we were attacked on 9/11 and it is not a major threat to the United States today -- the legacy of the 80s Afghan War and the first Gulf War, the socio-political conditions in the Muslim World, particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the 1979 Iranian revolution, the legacy of colonialism, the decline of Islam in contradistinction to the West, the failure of European states to successfully integrate their immigrant populations, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict are probably the primary reasons. It begins to sound more complicated than Bush would have you believe, doesn't it?

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