March 3, 2006

Slice n' dice. Just couldn't resist...

This article by Michael Kinsley, What Bush Gets Wrong about Nation-Building, seemed to me like a pumpkin that really needed some carving. It's probably more than anyone wants to read, but fun for me. Kinsley writes:

....But the case against spreading democracy—especially through military force—as a mission of the U.S. government is also pretty self-evident, and lately it's been getting more so. Government, even democratic government, exists for the benefit of its own citizens, not that of foreigners. American blood and treasure should not be spent on democracy for other people. Or, short of that absolute, there are limits to the blood and treasure that the United States should be expected to spend on democracy elsewhere, and the very nature of war makes that cost hard to predict and hard to limit.

When you hear something’s “self evident,” you can expect some malarky. Here it starts by Kinsley just ASSUMING that we have gone to war for the PURPOSE of spreading democracy. That somebody said: “Democracy’s great—let’s start killing people!” Stupid.

We no more did that than we went to war with Germany, Italy and Japan to spread democracy. We encouraged democracy after WWII, for practical reasons—to achieve the long-term result of building allies and prosperous trading partners. Similarly, our war aim now is to WIN THE WAR, and democracy is a TOOL for that. (And of course there was and is a lot of idealism involved in both cases. But it’s idealism harnessed to sensible and useful plans.)

Furthermore, the encouraging discovery that free elections are possible in unexpected places has a discouraging corollary: If tolerance and pluralism and suchlike Western values are not essential preconditions for democratic elections, they are not the necessary result of elections either. By definition, democracy produces a government that the people—or some plurality of the people—want, at least at that moment. But it may not produce the kind of government that we wish they would want, or—more to the point—that we want.

This is a strawman. It’s not being claimed that it will always produce what we desire. Neither will any other strategy that’s been proposed. (And, since this is a war we are talking about, it must be added that even if democracy results in chaos, that in many cases will be an improvement over terror-supporting hostility.)

The present debate over when to use American power in defense of democracies other than our own is at least more wholesome than the previous debate about using force to thwart or overthrow foreign democracies. The argument against tolerating Communist governments elected fair and square used to be that the election that brought them to office would likely be the last. "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people," as Henry Kissinger famously put it in reference to the election of Salvador Allende in Chile. (And we didn't just stand by and watch.)

And the results were very happy. Chile is now a prosperous democracy with a lot of freedom and economic opportunity for its people. If communists had taken over it would be an impoverished police state with a sex-tourism industry, like Cuba.

But today's concern about what we might call "nasty democracy" (defined as election results we don't like) is in some ways more profound and depressing. It is not that a regime will use democracy in the short run to stifle it in the long run (thus emboldening us to destroy democracy in order to save it). The danger is that democracy will reveal the people's true and continuing preference for a society with no place for all the other Western liberal values that our founding document calls "self-evident" (equality, freedom to pursue happiness, and so on). Even worse, these societies may decide to export their distaste for Western values just as we try to export the values themselves—and they may not agonize, Western-style, over the distinction between violent and nonviolent means of persuasion.

They MAY do any number of things. But this ignores the fact that countries have been turning democratic at a rate of about 1.5 a year since WWII. And USUALLY the result is peace and prosperity. It’s worth placing a bet on. (And it’s not like those OTHER policies we have tried in dealing with the terrorism-generating places have been safe bets, or even moderately successful.)

Recent news has left us awash in examples: the triumph of Hamas (religious fanatics dedicated in both theory and practice to the destruction of Israel) in the Palestinian elections; the emergence of a similarly attractive group, the Muslim Brotherhood, as an electoral force in Egypt; and above all the result of the American-sponsored election in Iraq, which seems to be just about the opposite of the lion-and-lamb tranquility that democracy enthusiasts had hoped.

The Palestinians did not have any non-terrorist option to vote for. And Hamas was elected partly for its reputation for not being corrupt. (Likewise, Amadjinabad ran in Iran on a platform of economic reform! His election does not mean the people support his terror policies.) Voters tend to favor bread-and-butter issues, and time will probably push the Palestinian and Egyptian politicians in that direction.

And the Iraqi election results are splendid so far, with much politicking and compromising and wrangling among groups that have never worked together non-violently. That’s GOOD.

The Bush administration denies a report in the New York Times that it is actively trying to undermine the Palestinian election result. And the evidence in the Times story did seem to describe a totally justified withdrawal of support more than anything like an old-fashioned CIA coup...

It’s not going to be a total withdrawal of support. (Or a coup.) It will be carrots and sticks. After 50 years under the tutelage of the UN, the Palestinians will not achieve sanity easily, no matter what we do. But making their own choices via ballot-box may help them along.

…But if these developments gave Bush any pause about his aggressive democratization project, he gave no sign of it Tuesday during his surprise drop-by in Afghanistan. From Bush's description, that legendarily bloodthirsty land has been transformed into something like Minnesota. It's a place where "men and women are respected" and "young girls can go to school" and "people are able to realize their dreams." We shall see.

In speeches you sweeten things up, but what Bush said is true. Not that it’s like Minnesota, but compared with any other time in Afghan history, there's much to rejoice in. What’s happened so far in Afghanistan justifies enthusiasm by President Bush.

In his biography of Margaret Thatcher, the British journalist Hugo Young used the term "inspirational certainty" to describe the strength that some political leaders get from refusing to let anything give them pause or change their minds. Thatcher had it, and so did Ronald Reagan. Bush would like to have it. But on this particular issue, at least, he can't because he actually has changed his mind. In the 2000 election, he opposed what was then called nation-building—and he opposed it for all the self-evident reasons. Now he supports it, for equally self-evident reasons. If the arguments for both sides of some policy question are self-evident, the correct answer must not be. But Bush avoids the trap of complication by taking his self-evident truths sequentially.

That’s the stupidest paragraph I’ve read in months. A British journalist claims that conservatives are incapable of reflection, or even thinking. Surprise. But that doesn’t make it true. Real leaders make decisions and then pursue them with tenacity. But that is not some kind of “opposite” to being able to change your mind, or change tactics, or reflect.

And neither Young nor Kinsley has not the slightest idea whether these leaders, in their private moments, are riven with doubts, or utterly confident. He can’t read their minds. He has no way of knowing whether Bush has avoided complication, or embraced it. This is just silly armchair speculation, in which it is discovered—try to contain your astonishment—that journalists are much wiser and deeper than conservative heads-of-state.

Bush parries any challenge to explain his change of views with the simple assertion that Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything. It's easy to see how that day might have changed his opinion about the urgency of the war on terrorism. But how exactly is it supposed to have changed his opinion about the aggressive pursuit of democracy as a tactic in that war?

He DIDN’T change his mind. He’d previously opposed nation-building that was PEACETIME do-gooding. America was not at war before 9/11. Even if you think nation-building is a useful war tactic, it’s still a perfectly possible to not support it as a peacetime effort. (In fact Bush was reacting against the sort of nation-building practised by Clinton. It was a reasonable position at the time.)

Democracy now stands as the only remaining official rationale for the Gulf War (which the administration insists is a battlefield in the larger war against terrorism). This is grimly amusing, given that George W. Bush's Gulf War is really a continuation of his father's, which was in defense of two feudal monarchies and had nothing to do with democracy.

This is grimly SILLY, since we are fighting al Qaeda in Iraq, since the evidence of Saddam’s terror-support, always strong, is getting much stronger, since the recently released tapes show that Saddam was by no means finished with WMD’s, including nukes, and since our agression in Iraq has transformed all the other areas of the GWOT, giving us credibility in dealing with a host of other leaders and groups.

We don't want a President Hamlet, publicly rehearsing his doubts as he leads the nation into battle. But the men and women risking their lives for democracy in Iraq deserve at least a tiny sense that the president who sends them there has taken the trouble to consider the evidence and arguments against his policy—and that he knows why he rejects them.

Since the President has ably defended his policies in countless speeches and other debates and forums, it is foolish to suggest that he doesn’t know the arguments against them. In fact, not just foolish, but preposterous. And if you pay any attention to what our soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan say, you discover that they understand Bush’s policy with great clarity, and support it. They “get it.”

Lefties want Bush to “rehearse his doubts” because they can use them as a political weapon against him, not because they give a damn about what our troops “deserve.” But imagine for a moment that Bush publically mentions some doubts about democracy-promotion. Do you really think that Mr Kinsley would be satisfied? Pleased? Happy? Yeah, like sharks are happy when blood’s in the water….

Posted by John Weidner at March 3, 2006 9:37 PM
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