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May 02, 2005

Debating Democracy
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

There’s an interesting debate underway at the Washington Monthly about how much credit Bush deserves for the spread of democracy in the Middle East, a topic that has raised some passions here as well.  Our very own Heather Hurlburt contributed a great piece to their series.

One premise needs to be clear before embarking on this debate.

We should completely separate the question of whether the Iraq invasion was motivated by the desire to spread democracy from our evaluation of whether or not the war has had that effect.

Most of the contributors to the Monthly don't directly touch on the run-up to the war. But many of them reveal a perceptible expectation that the two sets of events will ultimately be judged together.

Nancy Soderberg, for example, tries to draw a sharp line between the policies that led up to the Iraq war and the agenda the Bush Administration is pursuing post-reelection, arguing that it is the latter that is bearing fruit. Just three months into Bush's second term, and with the signs of a policy turnabout ambiguous at best (see, e.g. the nomination of John Bolton) a diplomat as skilled and savvy as Nancy knows that its at best too early to make that case.

There seems to be an inclination to believe that if the positive developments in the Middle East are linked to Bush, this ipso facto legitimizes the war, notwithstanding the false pretenses under which it was waged.  Jonathan Clarke faces up to this in his piece, writing that if it is true that raw American power percipitated democratic transformation in the Middle East:

those of us who had opposed the invasion of Iraq will feel like chumps, though we will rightly remind ourselves that the debate over whether to bomb Baghdad was always about means, not ends.

In fact, the two issues are totally separate. For anyone who is not convinced, Kevin Drum offers clear statements by Bush’s top aides making clear that the justifications for the war were manifold, but had little to do with spreading freedom.

Bush turned to the rhetoric of democracy promotion only once all other rationales for the Iraq action had disintegrated. By the end of 2004 the immediacy and terror of 9/11 had also begun to fade, requiring that Bush pivot away from his appeal to fear and offer a more uplifting foreign policy message. The spread of democracy fit the bill perfectly, and so Bush forcefully appropriated a set of ideas that traditionally belonged to progressives.

One element (its by no means the only element, though it is the only one I'll deal with tonight) progressives hesitation to link the steps forward in the region and U.S. action in Iraq is an understandable fear that doing so will validate the way Bush went to war.  We don’t want to ratify unilateral action, the alienation of allies and foreign populations, reliance on spurious intelligence, deception, or poor planning.

We suspect that if Bush is credited with progress in the Middle East, the misdeeds that seem to have already been forgiven by the American public (note the remarkable contrast to the political weight still accorded to issues like truthfulness en route to Iraq in Britain) may wind up offering a template for future foreign misadventures.

That Iraqis may ultimately be better off for being rid of Saddam Hussein and even on its way to democracy does not excuse the betrayal of the trust leading into the Iraq War or the fact that American lives were sacrificed under misleading pretenses. The spread of democracy elsewhere in the region will likewise do nothing to redeem this betrayal. There is nothing inconsistent about cheering the emergence of a more accountable and legitimate government in Iraq, and decrying the erosion of accountability and legitimacy back home.

The counter-argument, of course, is that even though the American public should separate these things, they won't.   Bush's shenanigans in building the case for war barely moved the needle in the 2004 elections. There's something very American in the bland, unpenetrating optimism of an "all's well that ends well" outlook. 

The only way this distinction will be preserved and that in the public mind is to link Bush's duplicity, high-handedness, and crisis of delivery in Iraq to a much larger pattern of behavior, one that cuts across Cherif Bassiouni, Tom DeLay, the nuclear option, John Bolton, and PBS, just to list out a few of this week's outrages.  It will be up to progressives to draw that link persuasively.

More on these important topics later in the week.


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--"The counter-argument, of course, is that even though the American public should separate these things, they won't."--

Exactly right. If the Middle East turns out OK, there's no way we can hold the neocons accountable for their duplicity. It will just sound like sour grapes.

The neocons played the same game before the Reagan defense buildup in the 80's. They claimed the US was in grave danger because the Soviets had mountains of high-tech weaponry, and the CIA was too blind to see it. Afterwards, they argued that they knew all along that the Soviets were a paper tiger, and if we just spent hundreds of billions of dollars, the Berlin Wall would disintegrate.

This doesn't mean I'm rooting for the insurgents, but we should have no illusions about this. The American people will forgive Bush if the Middle East is even marginally better.


A man returned home one day to find that his wife had crashed the family car into the back wall of the garage. Steam was rising from the radiator, and the front bumper was in shambles.

Entering the kitchen, he asked her: "Honey, what the heck happened to the car?"

She replied, "Well, there was a spider crawling up the wall, and so I decided to kill it. Aren't you glad I got the spider?"

Bush turned to the rhetoric of democracy promotion only once all other rationales for the Iraq action had disintegrated. By the end of 2004 the immediacy and terror of 9/11 had also begun to fade, requiring that Bush pivot away from his appeal to fear and offer a more uplifting foreign policy message. The spread of democracy fit the bill perfectly, and so Bush forcefully appropriated a set of ideas that traditionally belonged to progressives.

February 26, 2003: President Discusses the Future of Iraq

"The safety of the American people depends on ending this direct and growing threat. Acting against the danger will also contribute greatly to the long-term safety and stability of our world. The current Iraqi regime has shown the power of tyranny to spread discord and violence in the Middle East. A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. America's interests in security, and America's belief in liberty, both lead in the same direction: to a free and peaceful Iraq. (Applause.)

The first to benefit from a free Iraq would be the Iraqi people, themselves. Today they live in scarcity and fear, under a dictator who has brought them nothing but war, and misery, and torture. Their lives and their freedom matter little to Saddam Hussein -- but Iraqi lives and freedom matter greatly to us. (Applause.)

Bringing stability and unity to a free Iraq will not be easy. Yet that is no excuse to leave the Iraqi regime's torture chambers and poison labs in operation. Any future the Iraqi people choose for themselves will be better than the nightmare world that Saddam Hussein has chosen for them. (Applause.)

If we must use force, the United States and our coalition stand ready to help the citizens of a liberated Iraq. We will deliver medicine to the sick, and we are now moving into place nearly 3 million emergency rations to feed the hungry.

We'll make sure that Iraq's 55,000 food distribution sites, operating under the Oil For Food program, are stocked and open as soon as possible. The United States and Great Britain are providing tens of millions of dollars to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, and to such groups as the World Food Program and UNICEF, to provide emergency aid to the Iraqi people."

. . . .

"The United States has no intention of determining the precise form of Iraq's new government. That choice belongs to the Iraqi people. Yet, we will ensure that one brutal dictator is not replaced by another. All Iraqis must have a voice in the new government, and all citizens must have their rights protected. (Applause.)

Rebuilding Iraq will require a sustained commitment from many nations, including our own: we will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more. America has made and kept this kind of commitment before -- in the peace that followed a world war. After defeating enemies, we did not leave behind occupying armies, we left constitutions and parliaments. We established an atmosphere of safety, in which responsible, reform-minded local leaders could build lasting institutions of freedom. In societies that once bred fascism and militarism, liberty found a permanent home.

There was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken. (Applause.) The nation of Iraq -- with its proud heritage, abundant resources and skilled and educated people -- is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom. (Applause.)

The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life. And there are hopeful signs of a desire for freedom in the Middle East. Arab intellectuals have called on Arab governments to address the "freedom gap" so their peoples can fully share in the progress of our times. Leaders in the region speak of a new Arab charter that champions internal reform, greater politics participation, economic openness, and free trade. And from Morocco to Bahrain and beyond, nations are taking genuine steps toward politics reform. A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region. (Applause.)

It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world -- or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim -- is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life. Human cultures can be vastly different. Yet the human heart desires the same good things, everywhere on Earth. In our desire to be safe from brutal and bullying oppression, human beings are the same. In our desire to care for our children and give them a better life, we are the same. For these fundamental reasons, freedom and democracy will always and everywhere have greater appeal than the slogans of hatred and the tactics of terror. (Applause.)

Success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace, and set in motion progress towards a truly democratic Palestinian state. (Applause.) The passing of Saddam Hussein's regime will deprive terrorist networks of a wealthy patron that pays for terrorist training, and offers rewards to families of suicide bombers. And other regimes will be given a clear warning that support for terror will not be tolerated. (Applause.)

Without this outside support for terrorism, Palestinians who are working for reform and long for democracy will be in a better position to choose new leaders. (Applause.) True leaders who strive for peace; true leaders who faithfully serve the people. A Palestinian state must be a reformed and peaceful state that abandons forever the use of terror. (Applause.)"

It's too early to begin feeling like chumps about being wrong on Iraq. First, and incidentally, there were all kinds of ways to fault the invasion aside from duplicity, etc. Many considered an invasion feasible, but only after certain other steps were taken, including a completion of the search for WMD. The post-war revelation that the Iraqi forces were actually incapable of mounting either an effective defense against even a second-rate military power or an offense against any of its neighbors renders hollow the claim that the alleged spread of democracy in the region is due to the demonstration of American power. Just about any medium sized power could have toppled Saddam Hussein, it turns out.

But the truly relevant and important point is that it's way too early to start counting our blessings in the region. One can remember the excitement at the prospects for democracy as the throne of the Shah of Iran was beginning to teeter. Even the Ayatollah Khomeini was hailed in the beginning as a man of the people. Lebanon is very much in flux, and there's no indication whatsoever of democracy spreading to either Egypt or Jordan. Indeed, among all the countries in the region except for Israel, Jordan seems as reliable an ally of ours as before our invasion of Iraq, and it is no closer to democracy than it was then. Though Syria is making noises about getting along with Israel, that has no connection with anything approaching even the beginning of democracy in that country.

On the other hand, the ascension of democracy in Iraq could bring everything down around our heads if the aytollahs take over in Iraq and then join forces even in some loose kind of way with Iran. Would not Syria be likely to join them? What about Saudi Arabia and Jordan then?

The Palestinians are approaching democracy because we invaded Iraq? Implausible: Arafat died, as Sharon said he had to (or at least had to go into exile again) if there was ever going to be a deal with the Palestinians. However Abu Mazen may be representing the Palestinian people is as much due to the proximity of the forces of democracy in Israel as it is due to anything the U.S. might do in the region independently of our relations with Israel.

No, we can only hope that things turn out for the best in the region, including the spread of democracy, but it's going to take much more time before we can figure out why whatever good is going to come to the region actually happened.

Finally, to return to Iraq, are things really better there now than they were, say, a year ago?

I despair to see you folks buying into the administration's propaganda line that "freedom is on the march."

Nothing significant has changed in the Middle East or anywhere else in the Muslim world. Our boys (and girls) are still dying at an ever increasing pace. Al Qaeda is still growing stronger. The Saudis are still the Saudis; Mubarak is still Mubarak. Syria may have have withdrawn from Lebanon (and maybe not), but the country is a LONG way from regaining democracy, and as much a home to Hizbollah as ever. Oh, one thing has changed... Iran is closer to having nukes, and her fledgeling democratic opposition in decline.

I for one believe most Democrats sincerely hope that democracy will flourish; I know I do. But the fact is it hasn't yet. Which doesn't stop Bush and cronies from claiming credit as though it were a fait accompli. Sort of like "prancing on an aircraft carrier" (the new ship of state?) proclaiming "Mission Accomplished."

Only in this case, Bush's crowing at the dawn (you did read Wes Clark's entry into the Washington Monthly debate, I hope... will most likely damage the long-term chances for democracy in the region. But what do long-term objectives abroad matter to Karl Rove when there's always another election to be won at home?

In reference to prior comments and the topic in general:
1)Sometimes killing a spider is analogous to diminishing returns based upon the expense of the vehicle used. 2)Don't worry, we will not come out of this OK, OK?
When Dick Cheney stated, it was never about WMD, it was about regime change; he left off the word implied "stupid" to end his sentence. The results of taking an active role in manipulating this "regime change" is like playing blindly with a chemistry set, hoping for the best. It's ironic that while we spread democracy like feeding chickens abroad that we are losing it here.

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