Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Rootinest, Tootinest, Most Democracy Promotinest President This Side Of The Rio Grande

Providing Cover Fire

Daniel Starr has an interesting take on the notion of the democracy domino theory, and one that I find a lot more persuasive than the contention that democracy would spread by example - as if all that citizens of the Middle East would need is a democracy next door to illuminate the virtues (whereas examples elsewhere fail to inspire). I don't mean to suggest that the emergence of a thriving democracy would have no inspirational effect whatsoever, but simply that this alone would not be enough to instigate widespread change. And of course, this theory presupposes the existence of an actual thriving democracy in Iraq which seems a distant possibility, and one that hovers precariously over the abyss.

Back to Daniel Starr (whose prior post on paramilitaries, flagged by praktike, was edifying to say the least). According to the author, the invasion of Iraq established two conditions that are conducive to the emergence of democracy throughout the region: First, the invasion of Iraq created a crisis of legitimacy for the ruling regimes; Second, and perhaps more importantly, the willing application of American force, and attendant saber rattling writ large, has emboldened democracy activists who now feel that the regimes in question would be reluctant to crack down on their reformist activities for fear of US-led reprisals.

The Iraq War has given Arab democrats an opportunity, but it'll be up to them to seize it. And if America really wants Arab democracy, it'll take a sustained commitment, not just a one-year binge. But the short answer to Kevin Drum's question is yes, the "domino effect" is real. Crises create democrats' opportunity, and the Iraq War is a legitimacy crisis for most of the Arab leaders. Moreover, democracy breaks out when democrats realize the secret police can't just kill them all. American pro-democracy pushiness is seen by a lot of Arabs as limiting what governments like Egypt and Syria can do to shut activists down. Bush's aggressiveness against one Arab dictator has created an opportunity for other Arab democracies. But the hard part isn't getting Arab elections for this one year; the hard part is making democracy last.

We think of democracy as a purely natural development, but usually democracy breaks through when the autocrats have mishandled a crisis and lost the confidence of their backers and subordinates. That's how democracy came to Argentina, after the junta bungled the 1983 Falklands War; how it came to the Soviet Union, after the 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev left both him and his rivals impotent; that's how it happened in the Philippines, after Marcos assassinated Benigno Aquino in 1983 (though it took three years for the movements to crest and overthrow Marcos). Economic crises played a similar role in ending dictatorships in Taiwan and South Korea. And the Iraq War is certainly a crisis for the Arab autocrats, which makes it an opportunity for the Arab democrats.

The irony is that the Iraq War is a crisis for the Arab autocrats precisely because it shows them up as both vulnerable to removal and as not standing up to America. The democratic movements in Egypt and Lebanon are not pro-American movements. But ironic or not, the Iraq War makes the Arab leaders look impotent, and leaders who look impotent attract attempts to overthrow them.

But the more important contribution of the Iraq War to Arab democracy is the message it sends that Bush, unlike other Presidents, is willing to use force to make his foreign policy happen. And that means that Egypt's secret police and Syria's army are less free than they might have been to shut down protest movements. Nobody, not even the American government, knows how far America would let Egypt or Syria go to stop the democrats. But for the first time in a long time, the Arab democrats suspect that the despots' force is limited -- and that gives the Arab democrats courage.
Despite this restrained optimism, Starr acknowledges the fragility of the progress that initial signs of change can portend, as well as the hard work needed to overcome significant obstacles - many specific to, or characteristic of, the region.

But the real test is not whether we get one honest election in more Arab countries, but whether we get lasting democracy. That's much harder. Historically democracies rely for stability on a strong middle class, but the middle class of many Arab countries is atrophied. Historically democracies do better when there's a tradition of honest judges and the rule of law, and that too is not a regional strong point. The Arab countries have weak legal systems and weak economies outside oil, and that tends to be a recipe for military coups or Venezuela-style charismatic dictatorships. Arab democracy won't last unless the United States makes a continuing commitment to uphold it against the return of dictatorship.
Starr also notes the fact that America has a notoriously short attention span in most instances of nation building, regardless of the requirements.

America has a sad record of spending a few months or a year pushing for democracy in a place, then letting its attention go elsewhere just in time for the country to fall back into chaos or despotism.

Any Arab democracy is almost certain to fall into the hands of leaders who will be tempted to recreate dictatorship. Arab democracy may start now, but it won't last -- unless the United States shows year by year that it's on the side of those who want Arab democracy to last.
It is this tendency to declare victory prematurely and exit stage left that has led to healthy dose of skepticism on the part of people like Matthew Yglesias, who makes the case in this highly recommended article:

Many war proponents argued, however, that the war would result in a democratic flowering throughout the region. "A liberated Iraq," Bush told the American Enterprise Institute in February 2003, "can show the power of freedom to transform that viral region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions." And, indeed, it could, if the administration actually does create a stable democratic replacement for the Hussein regime. But the administration's consistent references over the years to anarchic Afghanistan as a democratic success story have always made the prospect that the Bush team would actually achieve this goal look rather dim.
Facts Are Facts, But Perception Is Reality - And Neither Are On Our Side

I think Starr makes a compelling case that if the regimes in the greater Middle East, as well as their respective citizens, perceive the United States as a potential forceful guarantor of political expression and freedoms, then reformist elements will feel empowered to assert their position. This loss of the deterrent power of the state-led crackdown could, theoretically, lead to democratic change as it has in the past.

We've seen the same "your leverage is gone" string of revolutions before, in 1989, when all the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe flipped to democracy one after another. What changed in 1989 was not that the activists were suddenly smarter, or the dictators more hated. All that had changed was the realization that the Soviet Union was no longer going to bail the dictators out. Suddenly, there was no room for the dictators to appeal to the kind of force they were used to relying on -- and suddenly, one autocracy after another gave way to elections. When autocracies lose their flexibility to use force on their citizens, democracy breaks out. The Iraq War, combined with Bush's pro-democracy rhetoric, makes many suspect that Egypt and Syria (among others) have lost the flexibility to use force against protesters -- and that gives the democrats a chance to seize power.
My problem with this argument is not actually the argument's merits itself in terms of leverage, the use of force, and the emboldened populace taking advantage of the absence of state power. I take issue with the premise that our actions in Iraq alone have created a powerful enough perception that the United States will intercede to halt clampdown's by government forces - especially in light of the muddled messages we have sent in terms of just that: our level of support for autocratic regimes behaving badly. Marc "Abu Aardvark" Lynch offers this summation:

Most Arabs are deeply cynical about American intentions, and they can't help but notice when "useful" Arab countries get a pass. Tunisia invites Ariel Sharon to come visit, and the Bush administration has not a word to say when a human rights activist is sent to jail for publishing an article on the internet describing torture in the Tunisian prisons. Heck, the administration doesn't even seem to consider it a problem that the regional office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative is based in a country which the State Department describes as having an extremely poor human rights record, where "members of the security forces tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees... [and] arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals."

Nor did the Bush administration have a word to say about Jordan, where King Abdullah's regime spent much of the last year getting more and more repressive. It got bad enough that Abdullah finally sacked his prime minister and appointed a new "reformist" PM a month ago, but - amazingly - no Bush official has yet said a single word in public about it....Wesley Clark, who wants more behind the scenes work and less chest-thumping, might actually like this. I don't, because it's such an easy target for the very large number of Arabs who think that the US democracy talk is a bunch of hypocritical hot air - a weapon to use against our enemies, but not for our friends. Places like Tunisia and Jordan really hurt America's image as a credible democracy promoter among Arabs, who pay attention to such things.

It got worse last week. The pictures of Bush kissing Crown Prince Abdullah and walking hand in hand with the Saudi leader reinforced this impression for Arabs. The op-ed pages of the Arab press have been filled to the brim the last week with pieces extolling (or damning) the return to normal American-Saudi relations. Whatever the Realist reasons for cozying up to the Saudis - oil prices, their newly helpful attitude on terrorism - it's got nothing to do with Arab democracy, and Arabs see that. Remember, they already don't trust this administration, so there's a big hurdle...and scenes like the Crawford love-fest raise it even higher. [emphasis added]
Lynch astutely flags one of the factors that waters down the Bush-as-enforcer-of-political-freedom theory: deep, pre-existing cynicism that only gets reinforced by realpolitik-esque maneuvering with blatantly un-democratic leaders. Simply put: perception is biased against us, and the facts aren't exactly lining up on our side either.

The Yglesias article referenced above offers a comprehensive chronicling of the incongruity between the message of freedom and democracy emphasized in this quote:
"Stability," Bush said in his [National Endowment for Democracy] speech, "cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty".... compared with the financial, military, and rhetorical support for some of the most brutal and repressive regimes throughout the region and beyond. Yglesias provides too many examples to excerpt, which in itself is a testament to the fact that our image as protector of reformists and democrats no matter their national location might not be as widely perceived as would be necessary to truly light the spark of regional change. In fact, there has been an inverse effect in some areas:

The administration's maximalist framing of the terrorism war, and the deals it has cut with unsavory leaders because of that decision, is having its most deleterious effect on reformers in those countries. While the aforementioned regimes are at least nominally aligned with the United States against violent jihadism, perverse incentives exist that all but guarantee that the dictators will fight terrorism in about the same way that Captain Renault cracked down on gambling at Rick's. A Musharaff or a Karimov is only able to pitch himself as worthy of U.S. support on the grounds that the alternative would be worse. If not me, the dictators say, the Islamists would take over. In certain times and places this may, in fact, be a correct assessment of the situation. But ready U.S. acceptance of such arguments gives autocrats every reason to ensure that their regime -- and the world -- is always threatened by Islamist violence. If, somehow, the problem were to go away, so would the U.S. support, and backward regimes would find themselves without the kind of money and muscle that only the United States can provide against their remaining domestic opponents.

As a result, these autocrats tend to demonstrate much more interest in cracking down on liberal opposition groups than on the Islamists we are supposedly supporting them against. A perfect example is provided by Musharaff's antics in Pakistan's recent parliamentary election. Candidates were required to possess a college degree in order to be eligible, obviously a violation of democratic principles. But if the goal was to hold back an Islamist tide, why were madrassa certificates accepted as a qualification equivalent to a college degree? The result was that many secular candidates were banned from running, while all the leaders of religious parties were in the clear. The upshot: Islamists, who have never performed well in Pakistan's sporadic elections, more than doubled their share of the vote over their previous high. This, in turn, lends superficial credibility in the future to arguments that continued U.S. support -- to the tune of $3 billion over five years -- for the military regime is the only alternative to an Islamist takeover. The regime's shenanigans aside, however, there remains little reason to believe that radicals would win a free and fair election.
In addition, I doubt that this penchant for double-speak is in any way ameliorated by the overly triumphalistic crowing about certain shallow and cosmetic changes.

Within Iraq's immediate neighborhood, moreover, there's been no sign of a democratic domino effect. The president and his defenders have tended to cherry-pick occasional signs of progress -- noting, for example, that Saudi Arabia has introduced "a plan for gradual introduction of elections." The pace of Saudi reform, however, is gradual in the extreme. The elections will be for municipal offices only and will not permit the formation of political parties. Most notably, only a minority of seats on the councils will be up for competitive election, leaving effective power -- even in the circumscribed sphere of local administration -- in the hands of officials appointed by the monarchy. Contrary trends could just as easily be cited.
Daniel Starr, in a separate post, acknowledges as much:

Unfortunately, America usually ends up going for symbols instead of substance when we pressure allies (such as Egypt's recent token liberalization of its presidential pseudo-elections).
Shooting Blanks

I don't think democracy promotion is a bad strategy. I concur with Yglesias, Lynch and many others that the Bush administration is not doing enough, nor employing the most efficient models, to promote democratic institutions through the vast array of "soft power" approaches. At the same time, it is hard to say that no positive momentum has been created by the toppling of Saddam and the vocal declarations on the part of Bush about the overall mission of encouraging democratic growth. But those words will in the end be rendered impotent unless they are backed up by more than the symbolism of Iraq which is in turn undercut by the GWOT's realpolitik-inspired coddling of dictators and despots dressed up by lavish praise heaped on half-measures of reform. If Bush is to be believed, and his rhetoric is to inspire substantial action, he must try to appear believable - and he must be in it for the long haul. Insuring this should be our mission.

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