Democracy is the menopause of Western society, the Grand Climacteric of the body social. Fascism is its middle-aged lust..E.J. Dionne says that "One of the many disastrous consequences of President Bush's botched policy in Iraq is that it has given the promotion of democracy a bad name." Well one man's trash, as they saying goes, is another man's welcomed death-knell of liberal imperialism. (If only it were really so.) Dionne is as mainstream a liberal as they get, somewhat to the left of main body of elected Democrats, moderately less corporatist, sometimes skeptical of Israel, opposed to the Bush administration on reasonably principled grounds, willing to break somewhat with normative liberal thought but never one to wander entirely off the ranch. He seems to be pretty well-liked by liberal bloggers, and unlike so-called liberal columnists like La Moustache and Richard Funnybone Cohen, he isn't an entirely unreconstructed apologist for empire. He has at least expressed a mild practical and ethical skepticism about the truly bloody Wilsonianism of the chronic masturbators over at The New Republic.
Nevertheless, Dionne writes:
This war has done enormous damage to the United States, and some of the damage is to our ideals. The United States still has a powerful interest in encouraging the spread of democracy around the globe. Promoting democracy must remain a core goal of American foreign policy.These are paragraphs worth unpacking.
But there are smart ways to promote democracy and there are stupid, even dangerous, ways. Creating democracy where it has never existed is a long and painstaking process. You can't whip it up by buying a cake mix or holding a single election and declaring victory.
An administration that fought a misguided, poorly planned and ill-considered war in the name of democracy should not be allowed to discredit the democratic idea itself.
"This war has done enormous damage to the United States[....]" This war has done enormous damage to Iraq. Several thousand Americans have now died there, and certainly money and matériel have been lost, but the United States as a nation or a nation-state is palpably undamaged by comparison. Our society, tawdry and wasteful though it may be, is intact. Our economy, fraught though it may be, is intact. Our territorial integrity is intact. Our basic capacity to pursue livelihoods, to raise families, to enjoy leisure, and to travel within or between our communities is intact. Our healthcare system may grind gears, but it too is intact. Our electrical grids are intact. Our water supply and our sewers and our industry--what remains of it--all of these are intact. We can say none of this for Iraq, which no longer effectively exists as a nation-state. So to begin with, Dionne's assertion of damage, like all such, is self-regarding, self-pitying, and literally inaccurate. It exemplifies the American myopia that causes us to mispercieve the principle effects of our foreign policy to be ultimately domestic, especially when that policy fails or falters.
Dionne goes on: "This war has done enormous damage to the United States, and some of the damage is to our ideals." A more accurate accounting would say and almost all of the damage is to our ideals. If you were to stop there and read no further, and if you'd already forgotten the first line of the article, you might hear in Dionne's post-comma clause the farther-left or libertarian critiques of the domestic repurcussions of the War on Terror and its Iraqi offspring: that the politics of fear and prerogatives of militarization have provided pretexts for opportunists and authoritarians to dismantle our freedoms and liberties--our "ideals." Surely to some extent that's what Dionne meant. But his next two sentences betray the real ideal that's been betrayed.
"The United States still has a powerful interest in encouraging the spread of democracy around the globe. Promoting democracy must remain a core goal of American foreign policy." To which the proper response is: Why?
It's one of the great unquestioned verities of the bipartisan Washingtonian consensus that this is true. Fourteen points, four freedoms, world safe for democracy, and all that jazz. As American as apple pie and Indian-killing. As red, white, and blue as Old Glory herself. Unfortunately, no one can explain just why it is so. You could argue, I suppose, that during the cold war, the idea of democracy promotion was born from an ideological committment to building a bloc of free, democratic nations to countervail the sphere of Soviet influence, although the true history of the period, proving the past as prelude, was of bloody intervention in the affairs of other nations with high talk about democracy and, shortly thereafter, a strongman of some sort or other, nuns thrown out of airplanes, paramilitaries, militias, contras, and the rest of the pre-post-Vietnam hustle and bustle from the Straits of Magellan to the Cape of Good Hope to the Mekong Delta and back again. Today, I suppose, the argument for promoting democracy--a euphemism, of course, for forcing political and military change in supposedly sovereign countries--is the same, with only the scowling face of this or that Supreme Soviet cartoon replaced by the bearded visage of Osama bin Laden sitting atop a packing crate full of Saddam's special-edition autographed nukes and waving to mom through the camera. As it always was, ever shall it be.
Yet there's painfully little evidence that democracy, even if instilled and even if practiced, is a meaningful hedge against the attractions of what we've come to call Islamism. Pronounce them with me: Hezbollah. Hamas. Neither group aimed its violence at the United States, but both originated as terrorist organizations, reinvented themselves as social movements with a paramilitary element, and recently reincarnated again as the sorts of armed political parties that used to go marching around Germany in the heady interwar years of that nation's failed democratic experiment. Remember: Roosevelt said that Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely (the key, he said, was education), and John Adams said that there was never yet a democracy that didn't commit suicide. The franchise is no guarantor of rights, justice, or fairness if its owners use it only to advance the cause of groups, sects, tribes, clans, or parties to which they already belong out of older, deeper, more ideological, or more emotional bonds. We're mostly wise enough to ask: "What happens when we liberate them, give them an election, and they choose a violently anti-American theocracy?" But we don't much like the answer, so we ignore it and pretend we never asked the question.
"But there are smart ways to promote democracy and there are stupid, even dangerous, ways. Creating democracy where it has never existed is a long and painstaking process. You can't whip it up by buying a cake mix or holding a single election and declaring victory." There is only one "smart way" to promote democracy: be a democracy, and otherwise, as Washington counseled:
Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing (with powers so disposed, in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support them) conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances and mutual opinion will permit, but temporary, and liable to be from time to time abandoned or varied, as experience and circumstances shall dictate; constantly keeping in view that it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that, by such acceptance, it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more. There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.All other "ways" are "stupid, even dangerous." As for "creating democracy where it has never existed," what Dionne really means is imposing democracy where it has never existed, and that is another thing altogether. He isn't talking about supporting democratic revolutionaries and dissidents in other countries, à la Solidarity, he's talking about the United States busting tyrannies all over the world, tossing the dictators out, even if no constituency committed to democratic reform and no institutions necessary to self-governing civil society exist. He's talking about Iraq, but done right. The liberal interventionist's fantasy.
"An administration that fought a misguided, poorly planned and ill-considered war in the name of democracy should not be allowed to discredit the democratic idea itself." The interventionist's cri de couer, wherein the great tragedy of the War in Iraq is less that it wrecked Iraq than that it diminished the political feasibility of intervening in Darfur. I've read the same accounts of the fiasco that was the planning, or lack thereof, for the Iraq War and its now-called aftermath, but I remain frankly unconvinced that such poor planning represents a great historical outlier to an otherwise excellent tradition of invasion and occupation. In modern times, at least, failure and mission collapse seem to be the norm, whether or not a gaudy Democracy! sign is appended to the effort. All wars to promote democracy are ill-considered and misguided, and so they're all poorly planned. They eux-mêmes embody poor planning.
The democratic ideal, meanwhile, as an American might mean it, is really nothing more or less than goverment deriving its just power from the consent of the governed, as well as six or seven other shopworn phrases that, as a society, we seem to have grown deeply impatient with. How such an idea translates into bombs away for ballots is better your guess than mine. Those who wish to "create" democracies wherever they aren't and sincerely hope to reap positive benefits should listen to neither Dionne nor Washington, but to Paul Klee, who in his diary warned us all:
Democracy with its semi-civilization sincerely cherishes junk.