Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Democracy, its spread, and the neocons (Part I)

Neocons believe that the spread of liberal democracy--democracy with safeguards for human rights and liberties--would be of general benefit to the US, to the citizens of the countries involved, and to the world.

Although I'm sure there are some exceptions, most neocons also believe that the spread of liberal democracy to countries that have not known it before, or that knew it only briefly and/or erratically, is neither inevitable nor easy. But they believe it is possible rather than impossible.

Contrary to the notion of some critics, however, neocons neither prefer nor require that such transformation to democracy be accomplished by force--a peaceful evolution, relatively sudden or relatively gradual, is far superior. However, neocons are unwilling to rule out force under certain circumstances. A circumstance that could justify the use of force would be a country or leader constituting a serious threat to the US or its allies, one that doesn't appear containable by other means. Neocons most definitely do not advocate warring on nation after nation for the sole purpose of installing democracies.

About the desirability of liberal democracy itself, neocons tend to be in basic agreement with Winston Churchill on the subject:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those others that have been tried from time to time.

The authors of the Declaration of Independence thought liberty was both the universal desire of all humanity and an "unalienable right" of all human beings, and that this was a "self-evident" truth. (This fact, by the way, was one of the reasons even the framers knew--and many wrote in their private papers--that ultimately slavery would have to go, and that retaining it at the outset of the establishment of the country was a hypocritical, strategic, and ultimately tragic compromise with the high principles stated in the Declaration).

And, of course, the value of liberal democracy is not all that self-evident to the numerous tyrants who readily deny people liberty--and even life--for their own purposes (as the Grand Inquisitor understood all too well).

Why do I bring all of this up? In my recent discussion of the reasons neocons are so hated, commenter Loyal Achates (not a neocon, to be sure) advanced this critique of the neocon agenda:

Neo wonders why the liberals could be opposed to the advancement of liberal democracy by military means, and comes up with a rather elaborate psychological explanation. A simpler answer might be, I dunno, that so far it hasn't actually led to liberal democracy but chaos and ruin. One might well ask why non-Communists are opposed to providing food for everyone by collectivizing the farms: duh, it doesn't work and people starve.

Actually, I was wondering something quite different, since I disagree with Loyal's notion that neocons predominantly advocate advancing democracy by military means. I certainly don't, and I've not heard of anyone who does. Nor do I think that bringing democracy to Iraq was the only reason--or even the major one--for the invasion of that country.

But let's put aside those arguments for a moment while I address Loyal's assertion that we know that the idea of advancing democracy by military means is wrong in the practical sense because it's already been proven that it just doesn't work.

Loyal compares the promotion of democracy through military means to Communist experiments in collective farming, in that he feels both to be self-evident failures. But that's only true if you define Iraq as a failure at this point (I believe this would be premature) and if you discount post-WWII Germany and Japan, both cases in which liberal democracy was imposed as a result of those countries' defeat in war (they both had a stronger prior tradition of democracy than Iraq did, but in both cases it wasn't all that strong and it wasn't all that liberal).

That's not to say that Iraq and Germany/Japan are similar places; they are not. But there's no denying that the present form of liberal democracy in both Germany and Japan are direct results of their defeat in war, and a subsequent occupation and rebuilding effort spearheaded by the US. So it's at least possible, under certain circumstances.

Loyal's "neocon agenda=collective farms=failure" analogy also breaks down if you consider the fact that we have a great deal of evidence in the case of collective farming, multiple and repetitive failures in both economic and human terms all around the world with no apparent successes; whereas the number of attempts to impose democracy through military means just isn't all that that large. And, among that small number, as I said, only Iraq so far could be arguably counted as an actual or potential failure. The others are successes. (South Vietnam, by the way, doesn't count, since we were not trying to defeat South Vietnam itself and install a liberal democracy, but trying instead to conserve a system already in place in the South--with some rather violent changes of personnel along the way--and to stop the North from taking over and installing a Communist government.)

Another problem with Loyal's argument is the errors made in postwar Iraq. Whatever one believes those errors to have been (in my case, I think that paramount among them was the failure to get the looters under control at the outset, and the kid glove treatment handed al Sadr), there's a general agreement that there were a great many of them. If this is so, how can we measure whether or not any perceived failure in Iraq might have been a result of those errors?

If the occupation in Iraq had been executed flawlessly in terms of tactics and Iraq was still experiencing the kind of sectarian violence that's going on there today--then, paradoxically, this would be a stronger argument against the viability of the endeavor of establishing liberal democracy there in the first place. But the more inept the occupation is seen to be, the more any resultant problems can be regarded as flaws of execution rather than problems with the basic concept itself.

The bottom line is that it's just not possible to tell much of anything from the single example of what's happened in Iraq; as they say in science, the n is too small.

That's not to say that Loyal couldn't be proven right in the end, and that all future attempts similar to the one in Iraq, if tried (and they may never be tried), will inevitably end in failure. Maybe there's just something about the endeavor that goes against the human grain in some basic way--as collective farming seems to--something that will make every effort ultimately fail.

But such a conclusion would be extremely premature. There's not enough evidence at the moment to allow us to decide that all such efforts are doomed to failure, just on the basis of what's happened so far in Iraq. And, in fact. there is some evidence that could lead us to conclude the opposite (post-WWII Germany and Japan). The preliminary answer might be that success depends on a host of conditions, including the previous experience of each country with democracy, whether the country has undergone the exhaustive process of a long war and a resounding defeat, whether it has a pre-existing strong sense of nationhood, how much effort and direction the postwar occupiers are willing to put into the process of reconstruction, how well they understand the particular conditions and demands presented by each country, and how much patience the American people has for the task.

[Part II coming tomorrow.]

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