Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Democratization And Egypt

Withywindle posted a long response to FLG's assertion that being concerned about short-term instability caused by the Egyptian Revolution is unconservative. FLG has a several problems with Withywindle's response. At first, he started typing up a point by point response. Then he thought that was overdoing it. So, he just posted a relatively brief comment over at A&J. But one particular point has been gnawing at him.

Just to distinguish: there are coherent pro-democracy-promotion-in-every-Muslim-country conservatives (the neo-con wing); there are coherent skeptics of this position (paleo-cons, Stanley Kurtz, Andrew McCarthy); there are coherent middle-grounders (Rich Lowry, the editorial position of the National Review); and there are anti-Obama diehards who will seize any stick provided by the above three to flail at Obama, no matter how internally inconsistent (Mark Levin, etc.). Do distinguish among them.

The point about Mark Levin is fair enough. But the issue of democracy promotion is a bit of a non-sequitur.

There's a question of whether the United States should actively promote democracy around the world, which is most strenuously articulated by neoconservatives. But that's not the question in Egypt. Egypt, as far as FLG can tell, is the product of an organic, grassroots uprising inspired by events in Tunsia. This is an entirely different question from whether America should actively promote democracy.

The neoconservative vision of democracy promotion is an appealing one to FLG, but he has numerous reservations, many of which have only been increased by our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. FLG isn't sure America hase the tools, resources, and skills to effectively promote sustainable democracy. Therefore, he's become increasingly skeptical of an American policy of democracy promotion.

On the other hand, when a nation stands up and throws out the SOBS, even if they are our SOB, under the auspices that they would like to take a shot at democratic governance, then FLG applauds.

Can it turn bad? Absolutely, look at Iran. But so can stable, autocratic governments. Saddam Hussein was our SOB during the Iran-Iraq War and was pretty much our SOB right up until he invaded Kuwait. Also, al-Qaeda is largely a response to the Saudia Monarchy. A Frankenstein's monster born of its corruption, Wahhabism, and ossified power structure.

All things considered, FLG believes that more democracy is in America's long run national interest. FLG doesn't think in the long run democracy will manifest heaven on Earth, as Withy seems to think he does. There will always be conflicting interests, even between a world with all democracies. But, again, the entire point of democracies is to solve political differences with votes and compromise rather than violence and corpse. Therefore, while democracy doesn't always live up to those ideals and certainly won't always in the future, FLG would far rather put faith in more democracy than grasping at the illusory stability of autocratic SOBs who happen to be our SOBs.

FLG has read numerous comments concerned about the Egyptian revolution and are predicated on of one of two things, oftentimes both -- concern about the interests of Israel or an assumption that Muslims, sometimes more specifically Arabs, can't handle democracy because their religion and culture are fundamentally violent.

If one is concerned about Israel, especially in the short run, then FLG gets the concern about Egyptian situation. But if your assumption is that Muslims or Arabs or however you want to describe it aren't capable of democratic governance ever, then that flies in the face of fundamental American values. Then what the fuck does America fucking stand for? Democracy for Americans? Everybody except those fucking towelheads? Freedom for Americans, but brutal oppression for those whom America deems unworthy or unable to try their hand at self-governance?

The United States of America either stands for democracy or it doesn't. Whether it actively promotes democracy is another question, but when the people of a country call for democracy, then FLG doesn't see any other option than to applaud.

Perhaps FLG is too sanguine and idealistic. Perhaps where he sees the birth of a new democracy, he ought to see the birth of a new theocracy. But he doesn't. He sees nothing to think Egypt will be another Iran. (In fact, FLG saw protesters out in front of the Iranian interest section here in DC yesterday. Perhaps this will spark a revolution there.) Nobody looks to the Iranian theocracy as an effective model. The people of this revolution were using democratic, not theocratic language.

FLG wishes them good luck.


George Pal said...

The people of this revolution were using democratic, not theocratic language.

So too did the people of the EU member states – often repeatedly – yet the EU, for all its assertions, is not democratic. A statement of purpose, or desire, is not enough. The language of democracy is often used when demonstrating and making known a disapproval of the status quo. Mend the economy tomorrow and tomorrow the Tea Party members and affiliates will be cut by more than half - democratic impulses giving way to economic. Install a strong man, in Egypt, or anywhere else for that matter, with an impulse for economic reform and real democratic urges will fade fast.

Insert an irresistible force – Islam – into the equation and you’re Sisyphus on a steep grade. The U. S. ought do, can do, nothing more to promote democracy than stop all foreign aid, military affiliations, and weapons sales, and just stand by and watch, and hope for the best.

Anonymous said...

Here's some more short/long time horizons for you:

Obama To The Next Generation: Screw You, Suckers

"...this president is too weak, too cautious, too beholden to politics over policy to lead. In this budget, in his refusal to do anything concrete to tackle the looming entitlement debt, in his failure to address the generational injustice, in his blithe indifference to the increasing danger of default, he has betrayed those of us who took him to be a serious president prepared to put the good of the country before his short term political interests. Like his State of the Union, this budget is good short term politics but such a massive pile of fiscal bullshit it makes it perfectly clear that Obama is kicking this vital issue down the road.

"To all those under 30 who worked so hard to get this man elected, know this: he just screwed you over. He thinks you’re fools. Either the US will go into default because of Obama’s cowardice, or you will be paying far far more for far far less because this president has no courage when it counts. He let you down. On the critical issue of America’s fiscal crisis, he represents no hope and no change. Just the same old Washington politics he once promised to end."

- Andrew Sullivan

Mrs. P

Withywindle said...

I should say first that posing as a High-Minded Idealist vs. a Hard-Headed Realist allows both sides to preen self-importantly; better to stipulate at once that we are probably fairly close on issues in the grand scheme of things, arguing over slightly different mixtures of idealism and realism that assume a fair bit of common ground. And of course the pursuit of national interest is its own wooly-minded idealism.

I think the nub of a good deal of your post is “The United States of America either stands for democracy or it doesn't. Whether it actively promotes democracy is another question, but when the people of a country call for democracy, then FLG doesn't see any other option than to applaud.” This posits a distinction between democracy promotion and applauding democracy abroad—but I think this is a false dichotomy. (Oo, I hates ‘em. But I loves me them true dichotomies.) How can the US government’s applause for putatively democratic revolutionaries, in the middle of that revolution, fail to have an effect? And if it has absolutely no effect at all, what on earth is the point? For Americans to feel good about themselves? “Oo, look at us, we just love democracy!” If such rhetoric has consequences, then it is democracy promotion. And if it has an effect, then we have to measure its effects in relation to the pursuit of our interests—even in relation to our long-term pursuit of the goal of democracy promotion, which may not necessarily be forwarded either by loose rhetoric, or even necessarily by a particular putatively democratic revolution. At any rate, I think your framing of the issue needs revision. Or your vocabulary—perhaps you could distinguish between democracy-promotion-that-requires-the-Marines and democracy-promotion-by-means-of-diplomatic-blather.

I think you are slightly reshaping your argument. I didn’t critique your perceived end-state—whether we call it “freedom, modernity, and democracy” or “heaven on earth” (tomayto, tomahto). I critiqued your posited dynamic of human history that will get us from Here to There—“FLG has complete faith that freedom, modernity, and democracy will win the day, but it will be a rocky path.” I waver on this—sometimes I think there is no dynamic toward freedom at all, and that we must take freedom as completely contingent and fragile, sometimes I think there is some drift in human affairs that makes working toward freedom a somewhat easier road. But in either case, I take there to be very powerful forces working against freedom, not least in human nature, that we must take very great care to preserve the liberty we have (at home and abroad) rather than to waste our forces in premature revolution (liberty in one country, comrade Trotsky), not least by the promotion of our economic and strategic interests in alliance with whatever political partner comes to hand, and that the long-term (ding! ding!) policy of democracy promotion requires great tactical caution.

Withywindle said...

All of which you might agree with in the abstract; what matters is the application. At this point the estimation of the political culture of particular religions and nations comes into play. I’m naturally pessimistic: I think liberty has its securest roots in dissenting Protestant countries (and even they require constant gardening), and that the concentric circles of historical and cultural distance attenuate the confidence one should have in the durability of liberal democratic government. I am still wary about the persistence of liberal democracy in, say, France, Italy, Germany, and Japan. Islam and Arabic culture are very divergent from dissenting Protestantism, and there are very long histories of illiberalism, of a lack of civil society, of an endogamous kinship structure, of a thousand habits of daily and political life that argue that liberal democracy will continue to have a tough struggle to implant itself in Egypt. (And indeed, these habits include violence that problematize the institutionalization of liberal democracy.) Add to that simple inexperience: any country that has never experienced democracy should be assumed to be unlikely to get it right without considerable trial and error. It is one thing to say that Egyptians are endowed by God with natural liberty and inalienable rights; it is another thing to say they are historically situated to create durable institutions to articulate these rights and liberties. Policy has to take very great account of the historical situation—and the historical situation of Egypt argues caution and pessimism. Fundamentally unsuited for democracy? Oh, fundaments are a matter for philosophers and proctologists. Right now, though, I wouldn’t lay wagers on Egyptian democracy surviving long—and I don’t want my government to put too much of its substance on the line for any such wager either. I’m willing to make small investments, financial, rhetorical, and diplomatic, in that direction—but only small ones.

My skepticism about fundaments, incidentally, applies to your invocation of “fundamental American values.” I take the use of “fundamental” generally to be a way of saying “shut up and agree with me.” The policy that follows from our principles is, and always has been, a matter of debate. I am willing to argue that America should always mouth pablum that states our ideals in abstract terms that hint obliquely at a real world application. But any greater precision in our language should follow a prolonged consideration of our interests—our short-term interests, our medium-term interests, our long-term interests, the interests of our allies, and maybe even the interests of humanity at large. The same stricture applies with even greater force to our exercise of fiscal, diplomatic, or military force—but, yes, it applies even to our words.

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