Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Two weeks ago, I laid out one case for why criticizing the "Bush doctrine" and celebrating the advance of democracy in the Middle East are not mutually exclusive.

In response to that post, reader GS wrote in with a legitimate question:
Is democracy in the Middle East good for the US at all? If Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya all had free and fair elections -- would the US like who the elected leaders? Take a look at Venezuela, where the people have elected Castro Part II.

So I 100% agree with you -- democracy in the Middle East would be a victory for the people of the Middle East. The US, however, might be better off with the current political make-up of the Middle East.
My answer is that democracy is always worth it, morally and strategically, so long as what we are talking about is liberal constitutional democracy. Importantly, "liberal" here does not derive from partisan politics but political philosophy: liberal constitutions are those which protect majoritarian interests from majoritarian excesses; they contain the minority safeguards which prevent popular rule from ever becoming, in moments of mass fear or religious fanaticism, mob rule.

Unfortunately, the sad reality of modern history is that it is littered with sovereign democracies that either never developed liberal constitutions or never implemented them if they did. GS cites the current case of Venezuela, but a better recent example would likely be the oligarchic democracy of Yeltsin's Russia. The most famous example of all, meanwhile, is Nazi Germany; it rose to power through (crude) democratic processes, and even as it perpetrated its worst horrors it retained broad majoritarian support.

Where Arab states are concerned, replacing relatively stable and (as far as the U.S. is concerned) benign regimes like those in Saudi Arabia with any of the illiberal forms of democracy would indeed be a disaster. In Saudi Arabia's case, you'd likely end up with something that resembled more a Wahhabi theocracy than a modern democracy -- and given that country's oil resources, such a state would indeed pose a significant threat to the strategic interests of the U.S.

If, however, constitutional democracies were instituted in the Arab world, then there is no reason to believe that the policies of those countries would run counter to basic American interests. An Islamic democracy with a liberal constitution would threaten the U.S. only in the way other modern democracies do -- as yet another competitor in an already crowded global marketplace. But because such a state would be primarily interested in preserving all the many legal structures which allow democracy to function properly -- ie, proprietary rights, the freedom to dissent, the rule of law more generally -- then the U.S. would first and foremost align itself as a political ally of that country. Only after it began to compete with significant American financial or military interests would we begin to challenge any one of its particular policies.

Out of all this, the one remaining question is whether it is in fact possible for a closed, totalitarian government to become a constitutional democracy without the inevitable transitional stage severely impairing or even disintegrating that democracy. In any of the current Arab states, could democracy survive a brief era in which a clear majority had not yet ratified a liberal constitution?

I hope to address this further later on, but my quick answer is yes. Through a mixture of trade incentives and quiet diplomacy, the chaotic popular sovereignty of nascent democracies can indeed yield stabilized, constitutional governance. As proof of this one need only look at the current developments in Eastern Europe; if democracy can catch on there, I see no valid reason why it cannot emerge successfully in the Middle East as well.

The only catch will be whether the Bush administration, or the American public at large, have the patience for the decade or two of diplomacy that such development invariably requires.


Blogger decavent said...

I couldn't agree more that this is all going to take time the success of the "Iraq Project" from an American perspective is going to be determined by the type of constitution and democracy set up in these countries. I think, however, we are running into a problem with the American Iraq; what I mean is, the type of democracy we chose to set up in Iraq is causing gridlock in it's first year. How is this going to play out over the next ten to twenty?

Check out Juan Cole for more.

2:19 PM  

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