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February 14, 2007

Causal Links between Lack of Democracy and Terrorism
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I think it would be fun to start an occasional series on DA called “causal links between lack of democracy and terrorism.” Yea, it doesn’t sound too sexy, but I think when people go on and on about how unrealistic it is to make democracy promotion the organizing principle of US foreign policy, they forget that the existence of autocracy abroad is not just a profound threat to our founding ideals, but also to our vital national security interests (so, yes, you can be both a realist and a believer in democracy promotion). It’s actually a very simple concept: autocracy breeds radicalism and terror, and there's a vast literature which makes precisely this point. To inaugurate this series, let me start with this excellent op-ed from Anne Applebaum, who looks at the deteriorating situation in Tunisia:

Once upon a time, the educated and the frustrated might have formed the backbone of a democratic revolution, just as they once did in South America and Eastern Europe. Now, Tunisians look at Iraq and see that "freedom" brings chaos and violence. Which leaves them with two options: emigration -- or radical Islam. Or perhaps both.

No one knows the true extent of radicalism in Tunisia because it is in the government's interests to exaggerate the threat. Nor does anyone know the true extent of Tunisian radicalism in the suburbs of Paris. But there have been bombs, arrests and reports of al-Qaeda copycat groups. Thus has an apparently benign authoritarianism produced in liberal Tunisia, as everywhere else in the Arab world, precisely the sort of terrorist inclinations it was supposed to prevent.


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Sadi, I think most people would agree with Bush. "I'd rather live in a democracy than a dictatorship (unless I'm the dictator that is)."

On the other hand, when we look at the details most of us prefer that other people live in an empire we control. Get local democracies and they might decide to do whatever damn stupid thing they randomly pick up on, and it disrupts trade. Much nicer for us if they agree to trade on our terms, and restrict their stupid democratic stuff to their own local affairs.

Sure, they tend to do terrorism when they aren't allowed a democratic voice. If they get voted down in honest elections then they tend to accept it, and they can work harder at convincing the public, and usually that doesn't involve terrorism.

Sometimes terrorists give up on convincing the public. They hope they can express their feelings even though they know they'll be a permanent minority. The Symbionese Liberation Army, for example, that kidnapped Patty Hearst, never ever had more than about a dozen members and never had much ambition of getting a big membership. It was more a lifestyle than a movement. They got a lot of publicity but they didn't do very much, mostly they made symbolic gestures, and robbed banks to support their lifestyle, etc. Democracy won't protect you from the occasional crazy lifestyler, but it does pretty well at getting people with political goals to do politics instead of terrorism.

So, what should the USA do to encourage democracy in other countries? I think in general it's a mistake to send the US military in to establish democracy. If the foreign government's military doesn't support democracy, then pretty quick they'll do a coup and we'll have it all to do over again. And if they do support democracy, it won't take real long before they get a democracy.

If we aren't going to overthrow a foreign government, how much persuasion can we do? If we get all hardline with them it's likely to just offend them.

I tend to like the idea of bribing foreign governments to turn democratic. Like, we offer a dictator so many millions -- up to a few billion dollars maybe -- to turn his country into a democracy and leave. We give him sanctuary if he needs it. Bring his most loyal people and give them stipends too. Even if it costs ten billion dollars it's cheaper than a war (for a reasonable-size country), and it doesn't tear things up, and a conscientious dictator will know a lot about how to keep somebody like him from taking over again. But I'm afraid this sort of thing might be hard to fund. It isn't that hard to get the public riled up about an evil dictator who needs to be overthrown. Much harder to get money to reward him for his evil past.

Maybe we could pay dictators to sell us their countries? We bought the middle third of the USA, and alaska, etc. If foreign dictators can sell us distant provinces, why can't they sell the whole enchilada? Then we run it as a territory, and set up democracy as quickly as we can, and maybe we give them the choice whether to be independent, or apply for statehood, or continue the relationship. That's democracy promotion! And you can tell the american people that we're getting something out of it. "We aren't just losing a dictator, we're gaining a territory."

In general we do better with incentives than threats. And we do better to try to make the switchover as safe as we can for the participants. Nobody gets real enthusiastic about reforms that are likely to kill them.

I don't think there is anyone who doesn't recognize that autocracy can breed terrorism, but my answer is so what? Democracy can breed terrorism too. Look at almost 200 years of American history when the KKK terrorized blacks- yes, the KKK were TERRORISTS by any reasonable definition and they terrorized our own citizens. In addition, democracies in the Middle East would no doubt also produce terrorists. Our democracy also produced Timothy McVeigh.

The point: democracy is a crude mode of analysis that doesn't really get you that much. Democracy can be Germany 1939 or the Southern States in 1865 or Sweden 2007. It can produce majorities that terrorize minorities and ones that respect them. Democracy is a great thing but this notion that somehow democracy will by default lead to less terrorism seems woefully simplistic and misguided to me.


The militaristic autocratic cabal in the United States, figure-headed by George Bush, the Decider, has certainly given the world a high level of state terrorism in Iraq, and perhaps soon in Iran. The US now has a powerless rubber-stamp congress as a result of corporate campaign financing, gerrymandered districts, corrupted elections and restrictions against third political parties. So, yes, in this case, there does appear to be a causal link between terrorism and lack of democracy..

Again, why pick on Muslims? Oh, that's right, there are few commies around any more so the US needs a new bogeyman to justify high military spending and wars. Watch out, kiddies, the Muslim'll get ya ef ya don't watch out.

"Democracy--rule by the people--sounds like a fine thing; we should try it sometime in America."--Edward Abbey


For some reason, you left off the first part of the first paragraph you quoted from Applebaum's article. No wonder, because it shows just what a non sequitor the rest of her paragraph is:

Unfortunately, the authoritarian government is also producing the potential émigrés, too: For the most notable product of the Tunisian "economic miracle" is, at the moment, a lot of well-educated but unemployed young people.

So the point is that the government has done a good job at creating well-educated young people, but a bad job at creating the economic sectors and jobs needed to absorb them. Now perhaps there is some connection here between the failure to create jobs for educated youth and the "corruption, nepotism and stagnation of a one-party state", but Applebaum doesn't establish such a connection here. Nor does she establish the causal links between the unemployment and terrorism. She just asserts a hypothesized causal linkage: no democracy --> underproductive economy --> grumbling, underemployed and terrorist-inclined youth. We've been getting this same story from Beinart, Friedman and others for some time now. Unfortuanately, we don't have much evidence at this point that it is correct.

Applebaum's main point in this particualr essay seems to be that the attempt to impose democracy and freedom on our enemies through force of arms, rather than starting with more friendly regimes, has cast democracy and freedom in a bad light. But I wonder if it is true that when Tunisians - or other people in the Arab world - look at Iraq, the lesson they draw is that liberation and democracy bring chaos and violence. My sense is that the predominant interpretation of Iraq in the Arab world is that what Americans tend to call freedom actually means Abu Ghraib, profiteering, oil market manipulation, imperialistic thievery, graft and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands. While this may have cast the American formula for freedom and democracy in a bad light, it doesn't do anything to the urge for freedom and self-rule themselves.

The idea that Middle East terrorism or less violent forms of Islamist activism are always symptoms of some sort of social disease or nihilistic pathology caused by the lack of American-style political and economic institutions infantalizes the people in that part of the world. I tend to assume that these people actually know what they want, and have turned to Islamism, and sometimes terrorism, because they believe that is the way to get what they want. Isn't it possible that many terrorists are driven by the desire for freedom and self-rule? It's just that the kind of freedom they want, as opposed to the kind of freedom Americans think they should have, is the kind that requires lifting two centuries of colonial and imperial subjugation to non-Arab and non-Muslim populations, and siezing back control of their own resources and lives from western powers and their economic agents. And given the asymmetry in conventional power, the only way to achieve this aim is through unconventional warfare.

People like Applebaum have been telling us for years that if only we get this political/economic reform thing just right in the Middle East, people will stop being terrorists and will accept the economic and political domination of Americans. But maybe that's not going to happen.

Now one lesson I draw from Iraq is that democracy is not enough to end terrorism and bring peace to a country, because if some highly motivated group of people, with a strong sense of group solidarity, perceives that it will be an electoral minority under the democracy, they may prefer to try to overthrow the government rather than live under it. Perhaps no amount of appeasement of the rebels - short of the abrogation of majority rule and democracy itself - can solve this problem.

I like the idea of discussing causal links between one thing and another. But establishing causal links is a matter for emprical research and study. Many of the studies of terrorism that have appeared since 9/11 indicate that terrorism occurs when a group with a strong sense of solidarity perceives itself to be oppressed and dominated by a larger, "foreign" group. They choose terrorism because it is the most effective tactic for achieving their aims. American pundits do their damndest to avoid accepting that lesson, and keep inventing new psychological "root cause" explanations for terrorism that go beyond the motives that terrorists themselves express, and that are born out by empirical research: it's the bad economy; or sexual frustration; or the "dignity deficit". It's all very reminiscent of the perverse efforts by Soviet psychologists to explain why their "patients" were unable to live a mentally heralthy life in a communist totalitarian state. But where terrorists are attacking American interests, it is generally the case that what they want is to get Americans out of some place that they identify as theirs. It's that simple. Why invent diagnoses that go beyond the obvious? Groups of people have fought to expel foreign rulers and foreign exploiters, and achieve self-rule, since time immemorial. What's new?

Now maybe some day Muslims and Arabs will all uniformly change their way of life, and accept the neoliberal dream. Maybe they will give up on traditional forms of ethnic, national and religious solidarity, and move to the modern practices of deracinated anomie, consumerist economic rationality and obsession with personal liberty favored by western-style liberals. Maybe not. And even if that day is coming, maybe that day is not coming soon.

Very good article from The American Conservative:

JS, you're looking at the american south as a failure. But the american south was a *success* of democracy.

We ran democratic governments in the US south and the blacks saw that they couldn't win. Without the numbers or resources to win elections, they didn't try to win by violence -- they saw they didn't have the numbers or resources for that either. A hundred years without attempts at ethnic cleansing is an *acomplishment*, a *good thing*.

It would be better still if democracy persuaded everybody to treat each other as equals, to live in peace and harmony and miscegenation etc. But avoiding large-scale violence is at least something.

When democracy fails at this it's usually because it's faked. So for example lebanon had a well-functioning democracy, but when they got a muslim majority the christians wanted to hold onto power so they refused to run a census for a good long time. They kept acting like they were the majority when they weren't, and eventually the system broke down into violence.

The US system was faked before our only civil war, we'd had a minority that kept insisting on equal status from the first, and when they couldn't get that they seceded. And of course lost the war. Numbers and resources weren't on their side. They'd have done better to accept that without a fight.

Democracy won't turn evil people good. But it can do a lot toward persuading people -- good or evil -- not to fight for lost causes. That works best when it's a democracy that tracks the real power. So in iraq or afghanistan it might be good to start out restricting voters to military-age men who have guns. One gun, one vote. Once they get settled down to the point that the opinions of nonviolent people count, then expand the suffrage to women and old men and people without guns.

Democracy doesn't necessarily create utopia. But it provides a better alternative than violence. People can still lose out in the political process, like US blacks and south african whites. But being a political loser is a whole lot better than losing a shooting war. And there's more stuff to go around when it hasn't gotten torn up in a war, so there's more to give the losers too. Mostly everybody does better than they would if they fought. Rarely, democratic majorities don't give the losers enough scraps and they have nothing to lose by fighting. That's a failure of democracy. It's blessedly rare.

J.S. - you say that "democracy can breed terrorism too...democracies in the Middle East would no doubt also produce terrorists." You're correct, of course. However, my argument is not that democracy eradicates terror, for this is simply impossible; rather, it's that democracy decreases the incidence of terrorism. Not only that - and this is perhaps more important - it marginalizes terrorists to the point where they no longer command the support or sympathy of large minorities (or, in some cases, majorities) of their respective populations. On top of this, autocracy also breeds radicalism, illiberalism, religious fundamentalism, anti-Americanism, and anti-semitism, presumably all things which we would much rather do without.

Back to the original point - democracy also decreases the likelihood of radicalism and terror through less direct causal mechanisms. A democratic government which is accountable to its people will (as the social science literature suggests) achieve better economic performance, higher levels of literacy, and lower levels of unemploymen. These things, in turn, would further drain the swamp of terrorist support.

Democratic governments in the region would also be more reliable allies since they would command the support of their people and would (in at least some cases) be able to more effectively marshall support, resources, and public sentiment for broad, national goals. On the other hand, the paper-thin dictatorships of today are more or less powerless to do anything of great import, because they are so consumed by their own basic survival.

"Again, why pick on Muslims? Oh, that's right, there are few commies around any more so the US needs a new bogeyman to justify high military spending and wars. Watch out, kiddies, the Muslim'll get ya ef ya don't watch out."

Hmmmm. I know I've only spent the last 17 years in military service, but I seem to recall either my peers or me being sent to liberate or protect Moslems.

First, there was Desert Storm/Desert Shield. The Shield protected the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and everywhere else in Saudi Arabia. The Storm liberated the predominately Moslem nation of Kuwait.

Then there was that Operation Restore Hope where, if I recall, we helped feed several million starving MOSLEM Somalis.

After that, my chums conducted air operations over the Balkans to protect, then liberate (and "occupy" under IFOR) Bosnia's Moslem minority and the predominately Moslem victims of Serbian aggression in Kosovo.

And I can recall also my twin deployments to Iraq, wherein I seem to recollect a strong sense of support among a majority of Iraqis for the eviction of Saddam Hussein and his cute kids from the throne of Baghdad. That these victims of the Butcher of Baghdad tended also to be, perhaps inconveniently to your argument, Moslem, is something that's not much in doubt.

I don't remember, however, the loud jeers of "No Blood for Baklava" when we bombed Serbian targets, nor any conspiracy theories spread that we were in Somalia for the Khat and camels.

Dan K-

"She just asserts a hypothesized causal linkage: no democracy --> underproductive economy --> grumbling, underemployed and terrorist-inclined youth...unfortuanately, we don't have much evidence at this point that it is correct."

fair enough. For more empirically-based arguments I would refer you to an excellent article by excellent 2003 study conducted by Princeton University Professor Alan Krueger and Czech scholar Jitka Maleckova ("Education, Poverty, Political Violence and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?"), which analyzed a vast amount of data on terrorist attacks, and concluded that “the only variable that was consistently associated with the number of terrorists was the Freedom House index of political rights and civil liberties. Countries with more freedom were less likely to be the birthplace of international terrorists.” This, of course, is not an argument for monocausality. There are other factors that exacerbate terrorism. However, the level of democracy in a given country is a significant variable, and perhaps the most significant variable relative to others.

Don- I'm not picking on Muslims. In fact, I'm saying that Muslims, like everyone else, deserve to live in democracies where they are no longer subjects, but citizens with full rights. Muslims, as I've argued before, suffer from a poverty of dignity. Democracy can help them restore their dignity and sense of self-worth. In a democracy where they are treated like human beings, they will no longer be passive recipients of what others decide for them. Rather, they will finally have the opportunity to draw their own course and determine their own destiny. They will finally assume the moral and political agency that every human being craves, desires, and deserves.

Shadi, what is your evidence that Muslims suffer from a poverty of dignity? It seems to me, as one example, that the Iraqis who are resisting our brutal occupation of that country, with all the casualties, kidnapping, torture and displacements that go with it, are not suffering willingly. As in Palestine and Gaza with the illegal Israeli occupations--hardly "passive recipients".

Tricky thing, this "poverty of dignity" concept. Where Arabs have a poverty of dignity, we see terrorism and hatred of the West; where they do not, we see the Anfal and Darfur.

It's a lot easier to assign political causes to things like terrorism if one is determined to declare all other possible causes unthinkable. It's also a lot easier to become attached to the idea that America must be about promoting Arab democracy if one is convinced the key to our future lies in the Arab countries. Unfortunately there are other causes for Arab barbarism more fundamental than how Arab politics are organized, and several areas of the world more significant from the standpoint of American interests than the Arab countries of the Middle East.

Autocracy has been around for thousands of years. It makes no more sense to declare this a "mortal threat to our vital security interests" than it does to declare the same of "evil," as President Bush is apt to do -- less, actually, if one were disposed take Bush's words literally, and thereby recognize the connection between human nature and human wickedness. I've never thought that President Bush intended to be taken in quite that way. In any event, his advocacy of democracy in the predominantly Arab countries is difficult to see outside the context of his need to rationalize the situation in which he helped place America after 9/11, and especially after the invasion of Iraq. Similarly Shadi Hamid's invocation of American security interests must be suspect; it sounds very much as if this gentleman's primary interst is in promoting a specific kind of political change in certain Arab counttries. Americans looking for guidance as to their country's national interests will have to look to other men than these.

the existence of autocracy abroad is not just a profound threat to our founding ideals, but also to our vital national security interests

Really? Then why does the US government continue to support autocratic governments in Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan and Saudi Arabia? And formerly in Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, and countless others--Philippines, El Salvador, Chile etc. And why is autocracy abroad a threat to our founding ideals? Baloney.

"that the Iraqis who are resisting our brutal occupation of that country"

In the grand course of history, the US-led occupation of Iraq (mandated, by the way, by UN Security Council resolutions and vouchsafed by treaty with the ELECTED government of Iraq) will seem quite tepid.

Ibid, the Israeli "occupation" (for security purposes that aren't much discussed in here) of Golan, et al.

Perhaps because some of us go beyond our computers to experience the realities of the Hobbesian world, we've seen occupations that make the "brutal" US look like pikers.

I could bring to this forum a great number of Kuwaitis who would recollect for you less-than-fond memories of Baathist occupation of their nation (unlike the US, an occupation not guaranteed by UN Security Council mandate), some Timorese who don't have many kind words about Indonesian rule, and not a few Bosnians who could share their stories about Serbian overseers in the rape pits and murder alleys of their fair state.

I seem to recall, however, that it was the nasty "brutal" Americans who played important roles in removing what were truly brutal occupations in Timor, Kuwait and Bosnia, and not the fictions Don Bacon likes to invent for US soldiers, in re Iraq.

But all this reality must be a bracing rejoinder for what amounts to a lot of cheap shots, half-witted Chomskyian regurgitation, and poorly cribbed notes from dogeared copies of Counter Punch.

The US invasion of Iraq was illegal in terms of the UN Charter and the Nuremburg Principles. Our occupation of that poor country has resulted in 600,000 deaths (100,000 by coalition forces), two million refugees and the crippling and dislocation of many people, mostly women and children. The random shooting of Iraqis at checkpoints and on the street, the raiding of Iraqi homes in the night with the kidnapping of young men and then the torture and killing of them in various military camps and prisons, the destruction of Fallujah and many people in it, the illegal use of cluster bombs, the indiscriminate aerial bombing and artillery fire on civilian areas, all of these are events which are a matter of record are in contradiction of the Geneva Conference and therefore illegal, besides being morally wrong. All of these factors, and more, have resulted in the resistance by ordinary Iraqi citizens to this brutal occupation that we are now seeing.

Your other references are equally wrong.

"I spent 33 years and 4 months in active service as a member of our country's most agile military force--the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from second lieutenant to Major General. And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism. I suspected I was part of a racket all the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all members of the military profession I never had an original thought until I left the service."--Major General Smedley D. Butler, USMC, double recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

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