Monday, February 28, 2005

Real Time Revisionism, Part II

Do All Inroads Lead To Baghdad?

In the second part of
this examination of some recent statements by Robert Blackwill, an advisor to President Bush, I wanted to parse another area where Blackwill stretches the current facts to the benefit of his patron. During the course of the interview in question, Blackwill was asked to respond to critics of the President's expansive rhetoric on the mission of spreading democracy.

I must say, that those who mock haven't been paying attention to the empirical data that's been piling up. First, we had the Afghan election last fall with this extraordinary turnout. Then we had the Palestinian election. Then we had the Iraqi election. We're going to have a parliamentary election in Afghanistan in the spring. So this isn't a theory anymore, this is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East and it is absolutely revolutionary, these free and fair elections.
Just as in the quote cited in Part I of this series, Blackwill is once again painting critics of the Bush administration's approach with broad strokes, and is probably overly triumphalistic in his own right. Most critics who took issue with Bush's rhetoric were not ignoring the positive trends in Afghanistan and Iraq, just noting that these changes stand side by side with other policies that show decidedly less commitment to freedom and democracy - such as the spirited support for autocrats and despots who take a posture more amenable to US interests. In addition, critics pointed out that such celebratory statements were a bit premature considering the history and complexity of democratic change. Here (via Laura Rozen), a former Bush administration official cautions about the tenuous nature of democracy when seen through the event of an election (an issue I will examine in greater detail below):

[Dov] Zakheim, who served as under secretary of defense during much of President Bush's first term, said: "I support the idea of democracy, but we have to be cautious about it. This is not the first time Iraq has had an election. We shouldn't view the future with rose-colored glasses."
I would also note that Blackwill engages in a bit of chronological sleight of hand by inserting the Palestinian elections in between the Afghan and Iraqi examples. Unless the Bush administration wants to take credit for the death of Yasir Arafat, we should acknowledge that the Palestinian elections were not the prerogative of our government the same way that events in Iraq and Afghanistan have been guided from Washington. The Palestinian people decided to conduct this electoral exercise, and would likely have done so with or without our blessing. It had more to do with the opportunity presented by the absence of Arafat than any other event like the invasion of Iraq.

Therein lies one of the potential targets of preemptive revisionism: democratic change. I expect to see the Bush administration, and its supporters, take credit for most positive trends toward democratization that occur in the Muslim world and abroad, and then chalk it up to the impetus provided by the invasion of Iraq - the fulfillment of the prophesy of the domino theory.

But isn't it very plausible that the Palestinians would have held an election even if we never invaded Iraq? How are the two causally linked? Should we assume that if we never invaded Iraq, or if President Bush did not publicly extol the virtues of freedom and democracy, the Palestinians would have eschewed their electoral model first given life some years earlier?

According to many theories about the historical imperative of democratic change, such as Fukuyama's in The End of History And The Last Man, it would seem that democratization is in many ways inevitable, even if it can be aided by certain external forces or slowed by specific societal impediments. But are we going to say that every single democratic iteration or movement that experiences any kind of breakthrough after March 2003 is a causal result of the invasion of Iraq? For example, why was the Afghan democratic revival not enough to spur change?

Further, I think that it is too myopic to ignore the significance of 9/11 itself as a catalyst for introspection and reform in the Muslim world. It was an event that caused ripples in thought, belief, and orientation from Morocco to Indonesia and all points in between. As an adjunct to the regime change in Afghanistan, those tragic events provided the US with an increased leverage from which to make the prodding nudges toward democratic reform that have been pursued to some extent over the past four years. On the other hand, I think there is also evidence that the invasion of Iraq actually spurred some type of backlash or strengthening of anti-Democratic forces as per Gilles Kepel's
most recent book. At the very least, there has been a tarnishing of our image which has caused reformers to seek distance rather than court our assistance and imprimatur.

This is not to say that the Bush administration does not deserve some credit, because they do. At the very least, they have brought the rhetoric and mission of democratic change to the fore in the post-9/11 world. I think they have been somewhat hamstrung by the Iraq invasion in terms of what methods and vehicles they can back though, so the result has been a slightly out of balance model that leans too heavily on regime change with little in the way of grassroots encouragement and institution building. Yet it is hard to deny that the Iraq invasion has not at least created positive momentum in Iraq itself, and may even cross pollinate movements in neighboring states. But it is a self-serving reach to claim that all democratic inroads lead to Baghdad.

Fits And Starts

There is a plausible argument regarding the chronology of democratic evolution that questions the wisdom of putting the elections before the foundation - a base of civil institutions such as free markets, an independent judiciary, free and unfettered press, etc, or at the very least opposition parties capable of mounting campaigns. As I have
argued before, there is far too much conflation between elections and democracy. The former is not enough to establish the latter. It is along these lines that I would make my second critique of Mr. Blackwill's claims that there is "empirical data" lining up in favor of democracy's expansion. Such views create a pernicious expectation regarding the ease of the task at hand, and the readiness to declare mission accomplished and head home. Middle East scholar Ronald Bruce St John provides a nice summary of the pertinent issues in a brief piece on the Foreign Policy In Focus which examines the Cambodian and Afghan experiments in contrast to Iraq.

That said, a single election, no matter how successful, does not a democracy make, in Iraq or anywhere else. A functioning democracy necessitates the development of a supportive political culture, that unique pattern of political action in which every political system is embedded.

Central elements of this political culture include a growing number of contributing citizens, an associated spread of mass participation and a heightened sensitivity to principles of equality. It also entails an increased capacity on the part of the political system to manage public affairs, control controversy and respond to popular demands. Finally, Iraqis must embrace the concept of a loyal opposition and the rule of law, including a separation of powers between the executive branch, legislature, and judiciary with the government subject to the law as interpreted by the courts.

Little of this exists today in Iraq. This is not to say it can’t be developed. But it will take time—and sustained international support. You climb a mountain one step at a time. The Iraqi people have taken an important first step. But they must be encouraged and assisted in taking the requisite next steps.

Twice in recent times, the international community has tried to introduce Western-style democracy, with a supporting rule of law, to alien political cultures. In both Afghanistan and Cambodia, political development has been painfully slow.
From the point of view of historical democratic movements, I would caution Blackwill and other Bush supporters to pay heed to the ebb and flow of the process. Roughly a decade ago, Russia was hailed as a burgeoning democracy, yet today under the enigmatic Vladimir Putin that country is lurching toward autocracy with a dash of despotism. Not an encouraging trend. Elections are positive signs, encouraging first steps, but they can prove to be chimeric if the requisite follow through is not executed deftly. Sometimes all the good intentions in the world are not enough to maintain forward motion and stave off regression.

Then there are issues with what democracy might yield in terms of risks and rewards, and costs and benefits vis a vis terrorism and broader foreign policy aims which I
examined here. As recent issues have arisen concerning the potential character and makeup of the prevailing Iraqi regime and the tone and tenor of the constitution to be drafted in the coming months, it is crucial to recognize that democracy can proceed in fits and spurts, with results that might not conform to our designs. Dov Zakheim noted:

In his January 28 speech, Zakheim argued that the "neo-Wilsonian notion that somehow America is the best vehicle for spreading democracy, or even that it is in America's interests that the Middle East be politically 'transformed' in the near term, may be as fanciful, and indeed, as counterproductive, as was Woodrow Wilson's own vision nearly a century ago." In its policies abroad, Zakheim stated, the United States "must consider whether democracy is always superior to other forms of government" because "it is not merely democracies that we seek to support, but, far more important, friendly democracies" and "the choice between unfriendly, or even hostile, democracies, and friendly, or even supportive, authoritarian regimes is not a foregone conclusion in favor of the former."
Juan Cole, penning an editorial for the LA Times, chimes in:

Pakistan and Iraq are not the only countries where elections have had mixed results. Although the Palestinian elections in January were widely viewed as a success — producing a pragmatic prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas — remember that the radical fundamentalist party, Hamas, boycotted those elections. Then, less than three weeks later, local elections were held — and Hamas won decisively in the Gaza Strip, leaving it more influential than before and poised for even bigger wins in next July's legislative elections.

And in recent years, democratization has also put Hezbollah in the Lebanese parliament. Serbian nationalists have won seats in Belgrade.
I don't mean to say that I am opposed to democratization as a goal, but it is one that must be pursued with a realist's eye toward what is possible to achieve in a given situation. Further, we should avoid premature self congratulation and the leap of faith from the occurence of elections to the perception of full blown democracies. Due to the messy nature of these efforts, a little more circumspection is required. Beyond this, it would be healthier for our mission, if it is indeed to foster the creation of democratic regimes, to make an honest assessment of the utility and impact of military means as opposed to other less bellicose methods. Rushing to make the invasion of Iraq the event from which all change flows, even retroactively, is more about partisanship than empiricism.

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