Monday, January 12, 2004

Push comes to shove, Democratization more attractive in abstract

The NYT reporting on the political situation in Iraq notes that the desire of influential Shiite religious leader Ali Sistani for direct popular elections in the next few months conflicts directly with American caucas-style style selection of governing candidates. Negotiations in order to resolve differences have so far failed in order to obtain any compromises. Experts warn that early popular elections could destabilize the situation in Iraq. The article relates:

Ayatollah Sistani is the most respected cleric here among Shiite Muslims, who make up 60 to 70 percent of Iraq's population but have never ruled Iraq in modern times. General elections would favor the Shiites, and experts have warned that ethnic and religious tensions would increase if elections were held quickly. Guarantees of rights for Iraq's other groups, including Sunni Arabs and Kurds, might also be jeopardized.

Supporters of aggressive democratization in the Middle-east, who in the past have criticized status-quo solutions, so far to my knowledge have not responded to this troubling sign in their first large-scale test case for advancing democracy in the region. Proponents such as Daniel Drezner in his Transparent move article on The New Republic and his commentary on his weblog about democratization tend to treat democratization as an immediate and tangible good, while treating the possibility of radical populist take-over as a distant abstract evil.

Dan quite charmingly writes:

The $64,000 question, of course, is what would happen if democratization led to extremist rule. This is undeniably a scary prospect. Still, the case of Iran, whose leadership seems increasingly out of step with its younger, pro-American generations, suggests that radical elements will experience difficulties retaining popular support over the longer run. Likewise, Hugo Chavez's attempts to pursue dogmatically anti-American policies in Venezuela have been met with increasing opposition. Anti-American jihads are of limited utility if they fail to deliver the goods.

The problem with this is that the test case of Iraq shows the exact reverse in the short-run. Cultural traditions and social institutions necessary for democracy are difficult to form quickly, requiring long incubation periods. It is a slow thoughtful journey to a civil society. On the other hand, conflicts of interest and prejudicial tensions are quick to rear their ugly heads in destroying the trust and goodwill necessary for people to work together in common. It is easy to criticize US policies supporting "our sunnuvabitches"; it's not necessarily easy to find a secular tolerant democratic alternative. In the long-run of course, non-democracies may become unpopular but that's the whole point - waiting until the people are ready to take a chance on democracy instead of trying to stuff it down their throats.

What about the democratization down south of our border and the collapse of the iron curtain? These are indeed clear empirical evidence that autocratic and economically devastated societies can transition to democracy. However, they are equal evidence of a long slow road requiring patience with setbacks and a clear acknowledgement that people may be attracted to other systems of governance. The invasion of Panama that removed Noriega was successful precisely because the removal of the dictator followed nearly a century of extensive American commercial and cultural influence via the Panama canal. Likewise the liberation of Mexico was followed by the Mexican-American War (PBS) that occured about 150 years ago. When America did intervene actively south of the border in this century, as in Cuba, Mexico, or Argentina the results both economic and political were often dire to our interests.

The Fall of the Iron Curtain likewise may have seemed to have taken place in a historical blink of the eye. However it took economic pressure, military competition, confrontation in countries as far flung as Africa to Cuba to Berlin, Germany to Afghanistan, and a concerted long dawning realization of the citizens that the West had become economically superior in order to slowly eat away at the foundations of the Communist Empire. Then and only then, after many decades of forceful, persistent, but slow outside pressure did the Soviet Union and its satellites collapse.

Trying to ride in and sell democracy with high-pressure tactics like invasion and cultural shock & awe have never worked. Indeed trying to force governments on foreign peoples as in the case of the second Iranian revolution against the Shah almost always ended in radical anti-American non-democratic regimes. Democracy is not an easy or quick process. The history of Europe's evolution from aristocratic elitist states to modern democracies show this. It should not be forgotten that Adolf Hitler was an elected leader of Germany before Germany had matured into a modern stable democracy.

So while saying "democracy is good!" is a nice bumper sticker, blindly pursuing it can actually result in disasterous reversals unless proper care and patience is taken to gradually coax democracies from developing and modernizing nations.

Update: Remember when we invaded Haiti a few years back? All to restore "democratic rule" to that benighted nation? Then the UN came in and tried to patch things up? To be fair this was a Clinton policy, but it shows the folly of trying to change a culture by crude outside intervention. Democracy has to come from inside, from within. Now we got this situation in Haiti as reported by the Independent in the UK.

The political and constitutional turmoil in Haiti deepened yesterday as the country's parliament ceased to function and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide began in effect to rule by decree while mass protests against him continued.

Update2: Bush speaking on democratization from beside Vincente Fox declares (MSNBC):

... American leaders must support “democratic institutions ... whether in Venezuela, Haiti or Bolivia.”

Does this mean that we're going to send troops to Haiti now? Or is this just (more) empty rhetoric? It's easy to talk big, and harder to follow through on it.

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