Wednesday, January 7, 2004

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Let the people vote

My latest TNR Online essay is up. It's an argument for encouraging democratization in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, despite the strong anti-American elements in both countries. Go check it out.

Footnotes and documentation to follow this afternoon.

posted by Dan on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM



Interesting piece. And option G is rather amusing.

What exactly does "a policy of aggressively supporting democratization" entail? Is this a variation on the Reagan Doctrine--supporting anti-regime elements with arms and money? A variation on option F?

posted by: James Joyner on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

With the possible exception of India, I can't think of a viable democracy coexisting with crushing poverty and lack of economic opportunity.
The economies of the arc from eastern Iran through the NW territories of Pakistan (an artificial country that has never worked as a whole country)are based on smuggling and banditry. Their economies went down the tubes when the East-West cavaran trade died out centuries ago.

Also 'freedom' and 'democracy' are perceived differently by different people. Even here, in the U.S., the standard view of of third world immigrants is on the order of: 'yes, yes, there is all this economic opportunity, but Americans are lazy, profoundly immoral bastards.' That message gets sent back to the 'Old Country' as well.

How come no one ever mentions Kuwait? We liberated them in '91 and yet we have done zilch to introduce democracy there. Last I looked, they still refuse to let women vote there.

posted by: claude tessier on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

Excellent article.

Hard as it may be for us to stomach, other peoples have to find their own ways in governmental models. A really bad experience with an unrepresentative rulership, a la Iran, might be a painful but necessary lesson for them.

And I think the U.S. serves better as an example than as an enforcer.

posted by: Fred Arnold on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

I think our proprietor's article suffers from the same problem as Bush's famous speech. What is "aggressively promoting democracy" really entail? If the dictator of Badistan is a really nasty man, do we invade? Do we send a bunch of civics teachers to Islamabad? Is the solution to Saudi Arabia to let 100,000 bloggers bloom? (But only with comments sections, so those of us too lazy to blog can kvetch)

The best way to look at it, I would think, is that when presented with a set of foreign policy options, we don't reflexively pick "stability" as the favored course. But I don't know whether that's how W and company are looking at it.

OK, proprietor. Here's the challenge. What do YOU mean when you say the US needs to "aggressively promote democracy" in Badistan.

posted by: appalled moderate on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

So, is there something wrong with Pakistani, Saudi, or Uzbek culture besides the fact that they happen not to have democratic governments? If there is, should we say anything about it?

Nations like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia do not have non-democratic governments because of mistakes in American foreign policy. They have them because democracy is a highly demanding system their less advanced cultures are unable to support. American advocacy of democracy in countries like these really amounts to adding an external challenge to the legitimacy of their existing governments to the domestic challenges they face already.

Now this may be in our interest in some situations. In the case of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state, it seems an extraordinarily reckless course of action -- apart from the fact that civilian democratic movements supported by American and European advocates have a record of delivering lousy government to Pakistan in the past. In the case of Saudi Arabia, experimenting with American advocacy of a radically different form of government would seem a poor second choice compared to finally taking steps to reduce the vulnerability of the American economy to sudden increases in the price of oil -- the only reason Saudi Arabia matters to us in the first place.

The question has been asked: what does "advocating democracy" mean? If it turns out to mean (as it has so often in the past) urging free elections and the release of political prisoners the result is likely to be upheaval and civil war, because most of the opponents of existing regimes object not to their lack of a voice but to their not having the power their rulers do now. And as for cases where civil war is avoided and the opposition attains power -- let's just say that the example of Iran is not the one I would cite if I wanted to demonstrate that such cases pose no threat to regional stability or American interests.

Could promoting democracy -- from the ground up, including all the things like religious toleration and abandonment of centralized control of the economy we know are necessary for it to work -- be useful to the United States? Sure it can, at some times and in some places. But democracy is a system of government, not a religion. Even religions looking for converts are able to distinguish between likely prospects and those on whom effort is wasted. We need to do the same, and learn to fight only the battles we can win.

posted by: Zathras on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

Bush, in one of his State of the Union addresses, implied some sort of Peace Corps Plus, sending volunteers to countries like Saudi Arabia (itself implied in same paragraph) to work with locals to promote women's rights, press and religious freedom, etc. I was very excited about it at the time, thinking that this president, whom I don't trust, was actually sincere about confronting the swampland of terrorism.

Doesn't seem to have gone anywhere.

posted by: bob mcmanus on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

Claude: Brasil? Peru? South Africa? Botswana? Ghana? Mali? Mongolia? Philippines? Mexico? Panama? Dominican Republic?

posted by: Al on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]


If aggressively promoting democracy means "lip service" about political prisoners and free elections, I doubt that your bad results will occur, since the US already pays plenty of lip service to these issues. There is even a state department website! (

The question for the proprietor is -- what concrete steps should we, as a nation, take, to promote democracy "aggressively"? Economic sanctions? Freezing the dictator's bank accounts? Refusal to invite the guy down to Crawford? A declaration of the dictator's "irrelevancy?" Sponsorship of a peace corps type agency to teach the common folk of benighted nations the lessons of Federalist X?

I suspect the proprietor has ideas on specifics. He's not a "glittering generalities" kind of guy. I'm curious what they are.

posted by: appalled moderate on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]


To me, another important question is whether the democratically elected Islamists would have a comittment to democracy. That is, if they were voted into power, would it simply be "one person, one vote, one time"? I completely agree that there is value in having a democratically elected government, even if that government is more hostile to the US than the undemocratic government it replaces. But, as we've seen (e.g., Venezuela), there's often nothing to stop a democratically elected leader, once in power, from reducing the freedoms under which he was elected in the first place.

So while I agree with the argument that it would often be better to pursue democracy in countries like SA and Pakistan (and that is especially true in the Middle East), my question to you is, even if we got free and fair elections, how do we ensure that those elected (even if Islamists) have a commitment to continuing democracy? I think it will be hard enough in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we will continue to have important continuing ties. I don't know how we'd do it in Pakistan or SA (or, say, Egypt).

posted by: Al on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

Option H) Work to resolve the issue of Kashmir by pressuring both Pakistan and India, thereby doing away with the secular governments main reason to keep the jihadists around.

posted by: Rosco on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

"With the possible exception of India, I can't think of a viable democracy coexisting with crushing poverty and lack of economic opportunity."

There are two ways to look at that statement you know.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

Dear Appalled Moderate,

"With the possible exception of India, I can't think of a viable democracy coexisting with crushing poverty and lack of economic opportunity."

Would you consider Brazil or Mexico to fit your analogy?

Seriously, advocates of foward promotion of Democracy to my knowledge do not mention South America or Meso-America. This is a hugely diverse region of multiple cultures (mostly related by Spanish or Portugese colonial influence) that has had a history of transition to democracy. It is also a stark warning to those who would let a hundred democracies bloom. It is also a region that has seen heavy US influence over a period of decades to the present day.

The answer seems to be that yes, Democracies can successfully form from previously autocratic and economically devastated third world countries. It is also often extremely unstable, prone to civil wars and revolutionary movements, often is plagued by uneradicable drug export problems, open to competition from other political ideologies such as Socialism, and not necessarily very friendly toward the USA at all. It is also true that even after decades of structural political progress, many of these countries are economic or social basket cases even with heavy Western patronage and guidance. Think of Venezula with its large oil industry and then think of Iraq, or Columbia and then of Afghanistan.

I'd say that anyone overly optimistic about the progress in Iraq or exporting democracy elsewhere should take a serious cautionary note from south of our border. People down there are still coming north because things are so much better here in every which way for most of the citizens of these countries. History - those who do not learn from it...

posted by: Oldman on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

Hey Oldman:

That's Claude Tessier you were quoting, not me. You should have been able to tell it wasn't me by the lack of typos and presence of philosphical content.

I have no problem with encouraging democracy as suggested in the footnote and detail post by our proprietor. I just fear that W might turn his devotion to the "promotion of democracy" in various places as another reason to indulge in a little preemption. Unless there are genuine US interests involved, that would be an outrageous use of the troops.

Tthe rise of democracy in Latin America in the 80s always struck me as something that was organic -- rather than the result of US influence.
For that reason, my guess is, despite the strains we see now, most of the regimes down there will continue to be democratic.

posted by: appalled moderate on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

Dear Apalled Moderate,

Thank you for the correction. You are absolutely right, usually your posts are more 'nuanced'. As for your commentary, I would agree that Democracy is here to stay South of the Border. However the road to this point has been filled with corruption, civil war, social turmoil, and they still aren't necessarily places you'd want to live OR in agreement with the USA. And while the overall arc of democracy was organic, there has been extreme influence by the United States including invasions, power play diplomacy, taking part in coups, propping up dictators, etc. Noriega wasn't that long ago.

The question is are the American people really gung-ho on doing this for the next thirty or forty years. Because that's been the kind of history we saw south on the border, with some of the civil wars (Columbia) and political instability (Venezula) and economic problems (Argentina) continuing to the present day. There were been no simple ecstatic spreads of democracy and economic liberalization similar to Eastern Europe which the pro-transformation advocates are fond of quoting. What if the Middle-east is more like South America than Eastern Europe? We could be in for a bad time for a long time, and meanwhile other priorities would have to compete ...

posted by: Oldman on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

I liked Dan's article.

His point about the transparency of democratic governments is a very good one. His point that a more consistent policy on human rights and governmental accountability would "give the United States greater credibility" is an even better one. The people and leadership of the U.S. should give these points serious consideration.

Unfortunately, none of the critical posts here mention these points.

posted by: David C on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

"Noriega wasn't that long ago."

Maybe my history is faulty, but I remember the US invading Panama to get rid of Noriega, after which a democratic government was installed, and that Panama has basically been democratic ever since. Somehow, I think this militates FOR the US aggressively promoting democracy, rather than against it. But that's just me.

"What if the Middle-east is more like South America than Eastern Europe?"

It would STILL be better than it is now and than it has been over the last half century. The problems of the various South American countries over that period are simply not comparable to the problems in the Middle East...

posted by: Al on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

Dear Al,

Regarding America's successful invasion of Panama - I was all for it before and afterwards. But as we all know, all invasions don't go the same way necessarily. And I'm not sure if Bush has been upfront in convincing Americans that the best way to aggressively promote democracy is by invading several more countries because like Noriega and Saddam mere outside pressure wasn't enough to topple their governments. This is the neo-con dream wish of course, according to Perle and Frum's new manifesto but most Americans wouldn't back several more invasions and occupations without more serious provocation.

There is such a thing as too much of a "good thing".

And as for your comments about the troubles of South American countries being better than the Middle-east, I'm not entirely sure that it doesn't come from a mistaken sense that things weren't too bad in South America simply because not as much was at stake there.

It's hard to imagine Americans not viewing as worse a turn of events where Saudi Arabia was split by a civil war where rebels controlled large swaths of the country like Columbia is now, or America tolerating a situation where a dictator like Castro or even an anti-American demagoge like Chavez getting ahold of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. It would be like the WMD arguments to invade Iraq preemptively, only for real this time. And it's hard to imagine anyone sane not calling a plot twist like that not for the worse!!!

So be careful of accepting that premise that if South America and Meso-America were the likely models for the Middle-east that would be better than it is now!!! More is at stake there, which makes conflicts which would be considered ignorable south of the border hackle raising over there.

posted by: Oldman on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

For those looking for more info on Pakistan not necessarily covered in Dan's excellent treatment you might check out my post on the matter at Belgravia Dispatch.

posted by: greg on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

Al, "Brasil? Peru? South Africa? Botswana? Ghana? Mali? Mongolia? Philippines? Mexico? Panama? Dominican Republic?"

Brazil's recent history of democracy has been punctuated by periods of military dictatorship.

Peru: ditto

S. Africa: vast wealth amid crushing poverty, democracy is still very recent. Looks good so far.

Botswana: I honestly don't know.

Ghana, Mali: no crushing poverty, vibrant middle class.

Mongolia: I honestly don't know.

Philipines: Democracy still freshly baked (did you forget Marcos and his Imelda) Military in the wings.

Mexico: pseudo-democracy until recently.

Panama: recent democracy

Dominican Republic: Trujillo?

In short, only South Africa comes close to India.

posted by: claude tessier on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

I posted this in the above thread but I can see it belongs here:

On a slightly different take. Are there any conservative thinkers working on the possibility that in Ten Years Iraq may be democratic, stable, econically prosperous, regionally dominanting, anti-semetic to the core, and the number one threat to long-term Isreali security?

From since before the war this always struck me as at least a plausible outcome of a "successful conclusion" to this affair as the Bush Administration had laid the thing out (given the various timetables for withdrawal in particular). I'd say the way things are moving are pushing this outcome closer to truth and not further away and I'm wondering if any thoughtful conservatives have worked on such a scenario."

Maybe Option G gets taken in such an event...

posted by: Michael Carroll on 01.07.04 at 10:09 AM [permalink]

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