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November 30, 2006

Realist Means and Neo-Conservative Ends
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Marc’s last post on using realist means to achieve non-realist (liberal, idealist, neo-conservative) ends is interesting. Unfortunately, Marc is all over the place on this one and ties himself in more than a few knots.

First of all, I wonder how clear-cut a distinction one can make between means and ends. Presumably, such distinctions might lead to an acute case of schizophrenia and/or large helpings of cognitive dissonance. In any case, means and ends are intertwined and, often, inextricably so. In other words, even if it would be somehow ideal (and I’m not sure it would), I have trouble conceptualizing how a policy defined by realist means and idealist ends might actually operate in practice. What are realist “means” anyway?

Ok, say our long-term objective in Iraq is to establish democracy. Perhaps, then, someone with a realist knack for policy might say, well, the only way we can get from point A to B is to temporarily install a brutal dictator who will keep the rowdy citizens in check until circumstances are more amenable to democratic governance. Would such a policy be advisable from a moral standpoint? The ends do not justify the means. Or do they?

Marc also stumbles when he assumes that George W. is actually committed to democracy promotion. He says: “Granted, history has yet to show that you can make a realist design and implement policies in pursuit of decidedly anti-realist ends.  But if anyone can do it, I'm going to put my money on someone as stubborn and ideologically driven as Bush.”

The evidence suggests otherwise. I must confess that I used to think President Bush had an ideology. However, now I'm not so sure, unless doing the exact opposite of what you're supposed to do is, in fact, an ideology. In any case, I can't seem to think of one president who has betrayed the democratic aspirations of Arab reformers more than George W. Bush (except maybe his father, guided by the steady, fisted hand of Brent Scrowcroft). Perhaps Marc is essentially trying to say that Bush has really good speechwriters. And, yes, that much is true.

If anything, the neo-cons’ commitment to democracy promotion, in practice, has been incredibly spotty. The problem is that neo-conservatives don’t just believe in democracy promotion; they believe in the promotion of a distinctly liberal kind of democracy in places where liberalism is non-existent and/or a bad word. The problem with some liberal interventionists is that they too will support democracy abroad only if it passes some imaginary liberal litmus test. Unfortunately, “liberal democracy” in the Middle Eastern context, is an oxymoron, because if Arabs are allowed to vote, they will vote overwhelmingly for parties that are illiberal. For someone who believes in liberalism more than democracy, this is unacceptable. Well, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. The whole point of democracy is to allow people to freely express their own conception of the “good,” even if it is different than our own. If we don’t like it, then that’s why there are elections every 4, 5, or 6 years. I hope I’m stating the obvious when I say that you can’t force people to be liberal, even if liberalism is, somehow, the holy grail of healthy political life (and I’m not sure that’s always the case).


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You can't establish a democracy when the politicians aren't chosen by the people. I mean the politicians were chosen by the US forces and then voted on by Iraqis but they need to be chosen by and voted on by Iraqis. Only the Iraqis know what is best for them. What the US can do though, is address the instability in the region caused by poverty and hunger. According to the Borgen Project, poverty is a threat to US national security. The UN Millennium Development Goals seek to address this issue but have yet to receive US support. This is an realistic option that we have yet to try!

If liberalism is not this "holy grail" of a healthy political life, why is democracy?

It would be a good thing if Shadi Hamid came up with an answer for this someday that did not boil down to "because it just is." Useful as well might be an acknowledgement that illiberalism in some societies amounts to something a little worse than "things we don't like," things like public approval for terrorism and war, persecution of minorities, overturning of international agreements -- and in the end, for one leader popular enough to dispense with real elections.

Of course if you get to that point you don't have democracy. The problem is that without liberalism you will get to that point. No American Founder needed to be told what mob rule was mostly likely to lead to. Without the liberalism of which Hamid is so dismissive, mob rule is what you are left with. I understand this idea may be literally incomprehensible to people who think that nothing could possibly be worse than the existing governments of, for example, the Arab countries. Well, they're wrong.

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Of course if you get to that point you don't have democracy

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