Thursday, February 3, 2005

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Speaking of Egypt...

This was one of the more interesting paragraphs in Bush's State of the Union:

To promote peace and stability in the broader Middle East, the United States will work with our friends in the region to fight the common threat of terror, while we encourage a higher standard of freedom. Hopeful reform is already taking hold in an arc from Morocco to Jordan to Bahrain. The government of Saudi Arabia can demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future. And the great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.

The lines about Egypt and Saudi Arabia were nicely phrased, in that they represented a challenge to the regimes there.

Coincidentally enough, the Wall Street Journal has a front-pager by Karby Leggett on Egypt's economic reforms. From the opening, it appears that Egypt's latest prime minister is adopting a much more market-friendly posture:

When Ahmed Nazif was appointed prime minister of Egypt last year, it came as a surprise. Mr. Nazif, 52 years old, was the youngest of 32 ministers in the previous government. His name hadn't appeared on any of the internal U.S. embassy briefs handicapping the leadership race.

What Mr. Nazif did next was even more surprising: He introduced the most far-reaching economic changes in Egypt's modern history, cutting customs tariffs by 40%, signing a trade deal with Israel and the U.S., and chopping income taxes in half. Now he's planning more painful steps. He wants to slash the government payroll and scale back subsidies on everyday goods.

The moves are designed to spur foreign investment and coax Egypt's long-dormant economy to life. "Egypt is open for business," says the Canadian-educated prime minister.

Sounds good -- but what about democracy? Here's where things get sticky:

Economic change doesn't necessarily mean political change. In the wake of Iraq's election, in which voters chose freely from a wide range of candidates, attention is turning to Arab states such as Egypt where the government keeps a leash on political competition. Mr. Nazif argues that if Egypt gives full rein to democracy before prosperity spreads, an "organized minority" -- referring to Islamic fundamentalists -- might take over. He says "nobody in his right mind today would be against democracy" but "when and how is the real challenge."

Egyptian intellectuals and government officials speculate that Mr. Mubarak is hoping for an economic revival to pave the way for his son to take over from him one day. The president has repeatedly denied that he wants to hand power to his son. He has also ruled out significant changes to the political system.

So, what does the U.S. do? Hope that the economic reforms trigger future political reforms, or apply more leverge on the Mubarak regime -- even if a more democratic government might not pursue such market-friendly policies?

posted by Dan on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM


Speaking of it an accident that Mubarak moved so quickly to volunteer Egypt as the host of the forthcoming Sharon/Abbas summit?

Obviously Egypt has domestic reasons for wanting to further an end to the interminable Palestinian crisis. But the more important Egypt is to the peace process, the harder it will be for Washington to pressure its government to make fundamental changes in Egyptian internal politics. Mubarak has not been in office for going on 24 years without learning a few things about leverage himself.

posted by: Zathras on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

Matt Yglesias --
In November 2003, Bush said:
By giving the Saudi people a greater role in their own society, the Saudi government can demonstrate true leadership in the region. The great and proud nation of Egypt has shown the way toward peace in the Middle East, and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.

posted by: anno-nymous on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

So, what does the U.S. do? ...posted by Dan
Obviously, following the example of Iraq, the United States must continue the Bush doctrine and launch an attack on Egypt in order to install a "democracy."

posted by: Mike on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

I've often wondered why we don't stop the foreign aid to Egypt. Why not use it on Iraq or Afghanistan?

posted by: WAmom on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

Hmmm ... I think Egypt better open up some political space before these is some kind of huge backlash against privatization, inflation, and so forth. See Amy Chua for the details ...

posted by: praktike on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

Does Mubarek have a valid concern that mobocracy will prevail, or is that just a cover story for a Power monger? Without any observations either way, most people would guess the love of power prevails.

posted by: Stephen on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

Sounds like Mr. Mubarak is taking lessons from the Chinese: economic, not political, progress. "Too unstable right now..."

posted by: beau on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

Specifically mentioning Saudi Arabia and Eygpt's need for democratic reform was fantastic; since the inaugural address, I have been calling Bush a hypocrite for not taking our "allies" to task for their tyranny. Now, if Bush will renounce his family's longstanding, very profitable, and very intimate relationship with the Saudi royal family and that beacon of democracy Prince Bandar, he'll REALLY gain a convert in me and a lot of others who are not totally convinced of his sincerity.

And by the way: Why does Egypt still receive billions in U.S. "aid" every year, a large amount of which ends up in a dictator's personal account?

posted by: DCInsider on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

Democracy and (more important and worthwhile)
liberty are luxury goods. Once the people get
richer, they will want more of them. Following
the chinese and the chileans is not such a bad
idea here, especially if good institutions are
set up in a way that makes them hard to turn
back once democratically elected politicians
take over.

More generally, it always disappoints me the
way the discussion seems to focus on voting
as an end. Voting is a means - it provides
one type of check on government - but it can
generate its own problems. The goals should
be liberty and prosperity. Voters can, and
sometimes do, elect people who will bring
them neither of these.


posted by: Jeff Smith on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

Jeff, i am shocked at the flirtation with fascism I hear sometimes. Even if you were correct, which you are not (prosperity follows democracy and the rule of law), it would still be morally repugnant. The Soviets tried such a course for 50+ years and it led only to death, poverty, and certainly no freedom at the end of the rainbow.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

I am not defending either the chileans or the
chinese, merely pointing out that certain useful
reforms, such as replacing pay as you go pension
schemes with forced saving schemes or introducing
school vouchers are tough to pass in a voting
scheme because they pit well organized groups
with a large interest in the status quo against
the broader public, each member of whom gains
only a modest amount from the reform, but whose
cumulative gains far exceed those of the well
organized group that benefits from the status
quo and often wins the political battle. Of
course, such problems are not unique to systems
that reify voting.

For the really slow: my concern is to maximize
liberty and prosperity. My point is that voting
is not always and everywhere the quickest path
to these goals.


posted by: Jeff Smith on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

" For the really slow: my concern is to maximize
liberty and prosperity. My point is that voting
is not always and everywhere the quickest path
to these goals."

That is a contradiction in terms. Orwellian, if you will. The pigs would be proud.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

Is Jeff invoking Plato? the rule of philosophers? I guess some people think of Plato as a direct predecessor of fascists.

I think there is reason to fear "illiberal democracy" in these countries, but that's not a good reason not to hold elections. The hope for a non-elected government to bring real liberty is unrealistic.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

The argument that, not only is self-determination not essential to liberty, but that it may be harmful I find fantastic (not in a good way). Self-determination is the _essence_ of liberty. Our American experience is based wholly on the premise that there can be no liberty without representation. That is the heart of who we are as a people, even before the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

I think part of the point is that voting != self-determination. Other rights, such as economic rights or equality before the law, are just as important to self-determination, yet neither of those is necessarily consistent (or inconsistent) with voting.

posted by: asg on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

Not to take sides in the whole elections-vs-liberty argument y'all seem to be having, but... remember a year and whenever ago when Sistani wanted elections and the Bush administration was against them? Those sure were the days.

posted by: anno-nymous on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

I dont think anyone is arguing that voting is the end all of liberty. But I will argue it is (to some extent) more important than economic rights etc, if for the simple reason that without self-determination those rights will almost certainly erode anyway, while democracy in the long run generally addresses such ills. Hence democracy has almost always been the foundation for expandingly liberal societies and not vice versa. What kind of equality can one have before the law with a government not checked by the people? Absolute power corrupts absolutely, relying on tyrants to hand power to the people when such ambiguous goals as 'equality' are reached is a recipe for unending tyrany. No nation will ever reach perfect justice or liberty, and hence there will always be reason to put off the day. See Fidel Castro.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

We ought to be careful about denouncing arguments people are not making.

Because voting is not the end of free government does not mean it is not essential to it. Because a state is prosperous does not mean that it is free.

Having said that, a couple of points. First, Americans have in fact tended to equate elections with freedom. Free elections are usually the American suggestion to resolve any crisis anywhere, even in places that have never held free elections before and where the most popular political figures include thugs, demagogues and aspiring dictators. We take for granted the many institutions in our society which support its structure of freedom as well as elections do -- the common law, independent courts, diffusion of executive power, private property rights. Even the fairest, most free election in a country new to free elections is only one step in the process of building a free society.

Second, it is unlikely that Egyptian President Mubarak either wants or will attempt to "follow the Chinese model" of promoting economic freedom while restricting political liberty in any but the most superficial way. The Chinese model incorporates not only two enduring institutions of political control -- the Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army -- but an ancient political tradition that places great emphasis on voluntary deference to authority and control from the center. Egypt's regime is far more dependent on one man -- Mubarak, who is well past 70 -- than China's is. In theory, a movement toward democratization could face fewer obstacles in Egypt than in China, at least once Mubarak is gone, and Egypt's ability to transform its economic structure rapidly is probably less than China's was as well. A more pessimistic view is possible as well, of course; I'm just pointing out that the Chinese model doesn't necessarily apply to any country without large numbers of Chinese people.

The last point I would make concerns American policy and American public diplomacy in particular. We ought to be careful as we conduct this to do more than just sling words and slogans around. We know what "self-determination" means to us, for example -- the right to approve a school bond issue or send an aged Senator packing. But in Austria in 1938 "self-determination" meant the Anschluss; for many Palestinians today it means the right of Arabs to evict all the Jews from Israel. It's not in our interest to appear to endorse concepts we deplore. In fact, we might be better off starting our public diplomacy not with inspiring declarations about what ought to be, but instead with frank discussion of what is. We know we would prefer a tolerant if recognizably Islam-influenced democracy in Egypt, will seek to promote it, but will never tolerate an Egypt controlled by the Islamist terrorist element. We might as well say that.

posted by: Zathras on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

Yet everytime that argument has reared its head, voters have rejected Islamic fundamentalist rule overwhelmingly. Nowhere in the world is there a democratic government friendly to Islamofascism. It is one thing to argue that democracy without minority protections and universal justice is incomplete, it is quite another to say it is dangerous, and should be opposed if it threatens our interests. That is the kind of thinking that has led to half a century of our 'good thugs' turning into 'bad thugs'.
Ideally, we could kick start any nation into full blown liberal democracy with a market based economy and universal justice. That is impossible. So our choices are to try to nursemaid institutions and rule of law by carrot and sticking friendly despots until some arbitrary and unknown time as they are 'ready' for democracy, or we encourage and insist on democracy, offer the tools and advice to help, and let the chips fall where they may. History of the last 200 years suggest they overwhelmingly fall towards stability, prosperity, and liberal growth (though not always).
The other way has the additional problem of playing into the American reputation for both cultural imperialism (run your human rights the way we say, then you can have a democracy) and for coddling friendly despots. The unreservedly pro-democracy way at the least has a certain consistancy that cannot be denied. Its very simple to say 'every nation must be self-reprentititive'. It is very difficult to explain why 50 other things have to be reformed to our satisfaction before we will push for democracy. Give the people their opportunity. At the end of the day thats all we can do anyway.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

One last thought, its a fair question to ask me if I would support instant elections in every nation on earth at this moment, whatever the outcome.
I would say yes, with one caveat. Pakistan would make me think hard. It is certainly a _vital_ American interest to keep nuclear weapons from falling into the wrong hands during a transfer of power. That is one extremely powerful argument against allowing nuclear proliferation. Once a despot nation has aquired nukes, it becomes a vital American interest for that nation to maintain stability, perhaps even at the cost of democracy. That is perhaps my greatest argument for disarming Iran. Once they go nuclear, we may not be able to support a democratic revolution. And that is a horrible place for America (not to mention Iran) to be.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

Final, final thought: The Mullahs understand this and that is why they will not be disuaded from fielding nuclear weapons. They are an insurance policy.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

I suppose that when I said we ought to be careful about denouncing arguments people are not making I should have added that we ought to at least hint at the arguments we are responding to. I just didn't think it was necessary.

posted by: Zathras on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

Aside from a bit of name calling, the standard
of discourse on here is amazingly high. I will
have to hang out here more often.

Zathras did a good job of saying things I wanted
to say better than I managed to. Let me add a
couple more points.

First, there are aspects of the US system of
government that are anti-democratic and yet I
think would be embraced by all of the posters
here. Most notably, this includes the bill of
rights. If it wanted to, a majority could get
rid of free speech (as many high school students
apparently want to do according to a recent
poll - thank you NEA/AFT ...), but it would
really, really take a lot of work. Indeed,
the bill of rights is such a strong barrier to
change on the issues it covers that the quicker
route is to have the supreme court interpret
bits of the bill of rights (or the constitution
more generally, as with the takings clause) out
of existence, rather than the voters taking care
of it via their state governments and the
amendment process. I, for one, am glad that
transitory majorities are prevented from making
these changes.

Second, I do not think that political science
(broadly conceived) has done a very good job
of explicating what voting can and cannot do.
There are various models around to be sure,
but I have not found a really satisfying
discussion. The founders, who disdained parties
and were operating within a world in which only
male property owners could vote, seemed to favor
a view of information aggregation. This view is
less plausible in a mass democracy where the vast
majority of voters are rationally ignorant about
all or almost all of the issues of the day. A
different view is that voting signals the
strength of various interest groups (usually
economic ones, but it need not be so). This
sort of view is puzzled by all the poor folks
who vote republican. I have always found this
view unsatisfying. If you want to do this, why
not just take a poll? It is much simpler and
much cheaper. Think of the opportunity cost of
the time that is spent by millions in casting
their votes (not to mention the cost of the
polling equipment and so on). A scientific
poll would cost vastly less and would require
a sample size only in the tens of thousands
to achieve greater accuracy, in the statistical
sense, than voting. A poll would also capture
many non-voters, making it more representative.

The point here is that neither of these is a
very satisfying theory of why voting makes a
useful contribution to our polity. The inform-
ation aggregation story is empirically implaus-
ible while the interest group story does not
explain why we just don't take a poll. One
might argue that voting also provides a crude
measure of interest group intensity (they can
get their folks out to vote) but there are other
simpler (and less crude) ways to measure

In my own view, voting serves two purposes.
First, it provides a way to remove corrupt
officials who are corrupt in a way that the
majority does not approve of. It is not
perfect at this, but it does it. Second, I
think there is a psychological factor at work
that explains why communist countries always
ran elections, even though there was only one
candidate. Something about showing up and
choosing has a desirable psychological effect
that decreases opposition to the regime. That
effect may be summarized in the ridiculous claim
that someone who did not vote cannot complain
about the result.

Voting does not, other than at a very broad
level, determine policy outcomes. Those are
determined by elites. We got welfare reform
under Clinton not because the voters elected
him to do it but because a consensus had been
reached among elites, based largely on evidence
from a series of social experiments, that it
might have positive effects. Yes, Clinton saw
it could benefit him politically, but so did
other presidents. It awaited the elites to make
it feasible. Social security reform is the same
way. It has become politically possible to go
after it because the elite consensus in favor
of the status quo has gone away, again in large
part because of academic research.

Third, part of my frustration with voting types
extends to people who worry about turnout in the
US. David Broder, the man who never got beyond
high school civics class, is the paradigmatic
example here. Our electoral system is designed
to produce two candidates differing only very
marginally in their policies. Given that, why
are we surprised at low turnout? Indeed, one
might interpret low turnout as a measure of
success (why waste valuable time voting when
everything is fine) rather than a measure of
failure. Yet after every election we get all
the lecturing from the nannies of voting about
we must all get out and vote, even though most
people have no idea what is going on about the
issues of the day and therefore are essentially
voting at random.

That's my rant for this morning.


posted by: Jeff Smith on 02.03.05 at 11:03 AM [permalink]

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