Monday, July 17, 2006

Democracy Is A Warm Gun

Jim Henley and Jonathan Pearce recently got into a little back and forth regarding foreign policy doctrine (more precisely, the wisdom of employing military options to bring about resolutions resembling some form of "justice" or, with even more audacity, actual liberal democracy) that is worthy of a closer look. Henley, in the original post that sparked the dialogue, offered these thoughts when contemplating a question posed by Jane Galt as to the "moral" issues implicated by terrorism and military actions: "what to do if just aims can only be achieved by unjust means?"

For me, the answer is that violence and terror - war regular and irregular - are very unlikely to achieve justice, by which I mean anything like a lasting classically liberal order. That’s because justice requires disinterest leavened with empathy while war requires strong draughts of hatred chased with bracing shots of arrogance. The recent American innovation has been to reverse the recipe: strong draughts of arrogance with a hatred tincture. I won’t argue that war of all kinds has never provided at least equivocal increases in justice. I won’t argue that violent revolution has never provided at least equivocal increases in justice - you can reel off ending American slavery and overthrowing Hitler and probably one or two others. But the odds against it are long.

This has been a big reason America’s Iraq adventure came a’cropper. Our lips say “liberal order” but our eyes - what we actually do - say, “The big guns say what goes.” It’s not like Iraq lacked for people to teach them this lesson, but instead of refuting the idea that power flows from the barrel of a gun, we reinforced it.

These are points that I have made on numerous occasions: that wars necessitate actions that don't exactly ingratiate you (as the occupier) or your mission (of seeding massive and widespread cultural and political change) with the target population. Blowing up one's relatives tends to create some hostility, oddly enough. Advocating for a more gradual, non-military approach to fostering change, Henley asks some pointed questions himself:

If a war is worth years of struggle, billions squandered and thousands or tens of thousands of dead on both sides, why isn’t peaceful change worth as much? Why is it a “bold initiative” to announce a “generational struggle” to transform a region of the world through a war that might or might not achieve its ends, but preemptively absurd to launch a generational struggle to transform the same region through nonintervention, to instill liberalism and justice by exemplifying it? Because people might get killed? People get killed the other way. Because it might not work? Look around you. The other way isn’t working now.

This is where Pearce jumps in:

My main problem with Jim's argument is that setting an example to the dictatorships, thugocracies etc of that region would strike me as a fairly drawn-out, if not rank impossible, endeavour (that's putting it politely, ed). We are talking about a process that might last thousands of years. And I am afraid that in the meantime, the various despots in that region might not quite get with the Enlightenment programme and develop a continued fondness for blowing infidels up.

To which, in my opinion, Henley does an admirable job in rebuttal:

Why might the process of inspiring more liberal values in the Muslim world take “thousands of years?” The dual strategy of deterrence and visibly living well took less than a century to bring down militarized socialism. Already, and this is too often forgotten, it is a mere rump of Muslim societies that can bestir themselves to actually wage violent Jihad, folks two standard deviations from the mean of their societies.

This is where it gets interesting. Henley extrapolates from Pearce's lack of faith in the appeal and potency of the very ideals that people like Pearce have convinced themselves are going to spring up almost ex nihilo in Iraq (and a destabilized Iran, Syria, Lebanon, etc.) once the shock and awe settles, to broader currents running through conservative foreign policy outlook.

The history of the nationalist Right since the Cold War shows that a prominent strain of it has surprisingly little faith in its own side. The “long twilight struggle” people during the Cold War believed that the West was too weak, too decadent, that the triumph of the cold hard legions of Communism was, alas, inevitable. Their Bible was Jean-Francois Revel’s How Democracies Perish, but Revel’s book merely crystallized ideas that were commonplace throughout the gloomier quarters of the Right. The West achieved its final victory over the Soviets before How Democracies Perish had time to be remaindered. The gloomy Right was wrong then and they’re wrong now.

Who was right? Ronald Reagan, actually. He was convinced the West was about to win the Cold War because the West had a better product: (what passes for) Liberty. We still (barely) do.

This historical footnote is indeed often forgotten - easily buried beneath mounds of hagiographic odes to Reagan's great successes that conceal the controversial aspects of his actions. Many of the most prominent neoconservative and conservative foreign policy minds at the time thought Reagan was wrong to engage Gorbachev in the latter's outreach/reformist gestures embodied in the policies of glasnost and perestroika (ie, Norman Podhoretz, John Bolton, Condi Rice, etc).

Henley continues on a similar, though separate track:

I should note there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance involved in Jonathan’s worry that it could take “thousands of years” for the greater Muslim Middle East to get with the liberal program. A lot of paleocon isolationists have argued that the attempt to impose liberalism on the region by force was doomed to fail because “democracy” was culturally alien to the region. Hawks from the President on down have argued that this attitude is “racist,” that the critics are saying “brown people don’t deserve democracy” or don’t love freedom. I am pretty sure that Samizdata has agreed with this response in the past. That seems at odds with the idea that it could take “thousands of years” for the Ummah to embrace liberalism absent the cleansing fire of military force. You have to have an awful lot of faith in the transformative power of government violence to hold both thoughts in mind.

That, in many ways, sums up the dueling narratives swirling around the rhetorical landscape of so many Bush supporters. On the one hand, there are self-congratulatory, messianic and exceptionalist appeals to purple-stained fingers, Cedar Revolutions and God's gift of democracy (and its universal appeal) spread by his servant, George W. Bush.

On the other hand, there is a deep pessimism, suspicion and presumption of guilt for Muslims and other denizens of the very region that is the focus of our transformative, democratic "liberations." These policy makers and pundits are so certain that the people in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, etc. are just waiting for the magnanimity of a US-launched decapitation strike so that they might burst forth in liberal democratic splendor, yet at the same time coldy certain that these restive masses won't muster the will/means on their own without such outside military assistance for "thousands of years." The two don't seem to line up entirely.

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