Monday, July 21, 2008

Democracy & Delusion

Democracy and Delusion :Major(R)Khalid Nasr There appears to be an unchallengeable consensus that the spread of democracy throughout the world would bring about a lasting solution to the problem of war. In defense of his attempts to transform Iraq, President Bush has argued that "peace is gained as justice and democracy advance." To the extent that the political left in America disagrees with the Bush policy, it is over the military means the administration has employed – very few challenge the premise that democracy can transform war-torn regions into zones of peace. This premise is based on the historical claim that democracies do not go to war with one another. But the historical record on which this claim rests is fairly narrow. Most modern democracies did not come into existence until the twentieth century, and many of these did not become fully established except under a very particular set of circumstances arising after World War Two which facilitated cooperation: the great powers had suffered enormously, there was widespread fear of nuclear war, and a fear of Soviet expansionism. In this context, the U.S. was widely perceived as the defender of the West and its common cultural heritage. All of these factors granted a moral legitimacy to U.S. power, which allowed the U.S. to exercise its power to uphold global stability and encourage the growth of transnational institutions, which led to the long post-World War Two peace between democracies. The contrast between this particular set of circumstances and the circumstances of the Middle East is striking. Rather than being rescued from war and external threats by a reluctant U.S., as was Europe, Iraq was subjected to a preemptive war and a botched occupation. It is widely perceived in the Middle East that the U.S. went to war because of Iraq’s large oil reserves – and there is a little truth in this perception, even if it is not the whole truth. In addition, rather than dealing with a set of countries with a common cultural heritage, the Middle East is a veritable arena for a "clash of civilizations," with the U.S. and Israel being viewed as imperialist Western intruders into Islamic lands. For these reasons, the U.S. does not currently have the same perceived moral legitimacy in exercising leadership in the Middle East as it did in the West after World War Two. Indeed, opinion polls have shown repeatedly that while large numbers of people in the Middle East have a favorable view of American democracy and liberty, they resent U.S. foreign policy, and this resentment has only increased as the U.S. has become more militarily involved in the Middle East and moved ever closer to the government of Ariel Sharon. Indeed, Middle East liberals have expressed their concern that open U.S. support for liberal dissidents in Muslim countries only casts suspicion on the dissidents and undermines their cause. Historically, there is no evidence that the rule that "democracies don’t fight each other" applies to the Middle East. The democratic institutions of the Jewish community in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s did not prevent Jewish attacks upon British troops trying to maintain order in the region in the years before Israeli independence, nor did it prevent a democratic Lebanon from going to war against Israel in 1948. Over thirty years later, when Israel invaded Lebanon, Israel tried to set up a friendly Christian-dominated government in that country that would have permanently shut out Lebanon’s Muslim majority from power. Indeed, one can make a case that it is unelected elites in Islamic countries who are more inclined to be friendlier, or at least less hostile, to the U.S. and Israel. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of Pakistanis and 55 percent of Jordanians held a favorable view of Osama Bin Laden; fortunately this populist support for a terrorist is not likely to be translated into official policy as long as authoritarian governments persist in those states. However, a recent article in the New Republic bemoaned the fact that the declining influence of secular military officers and rising influence of popularly-elected rulers in Turkey has resulted in a significant cooling of relations between Israel and Turkey. This should not be surprising, since 63 percent of Turks say they sympathize with the Palestinians in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is true that the spread of democracy may contribute partly to peace, by making governments more accountable and checking the plans of the overly-ambitious. However, democracy cannot overcome all rivalries based on clashing national interests, religions, and social identities. No better proof of this can be found in the recent claims of some prominent neoconservatives that France should be considered a "rival, perhaps even an enemy of the United States" – this despite the fact that France is indisputably a democracy. Those who insist that the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East is the way to peace should be careful what they wish for.

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