Posted by: sean | February 20, 2009

Democracy promotion with tanks: Robbing Peter to pay Paul

To answer some questions asked in the comments of the previous post about Hitchens and Iraq, there are  plenty of policies that can help promote democratic rule of law that don’t involve an air force. The fact of the matter is that Arab countries are relatively young, as far as nation states go, so it’s historically insignificant to state that no Arab regime has been toppled with anything other than force. Transitions to democracy have been seen throughout the world, in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

To my mind, the problem with the Middle East is that it is a very important region geo-strategically speaking, so the West has very little patience for midwifing transition through less belligerent means. These include supporting grassroots opposition and civil society, and yes, helping to resolve the Arab/Israeli conflict.  Israel (and now Islamism) is a fig leaf used by Arab regimes to continue ruling through authoritarianism. If that conflict were to be taken out of the equation, liberal forces in Arab countries would have a lot more breathing room, without being accused of aiding the “Zionist enemy.”

Morocco is an example of a country that has made tremendous leaps in the last few decades. King Hassan Mohammad is no paragon of democracy, but he has made many reforms, including the truth and reconciliation process to investigate the crimes of his father’s government. In Lebanon, also, if there were a just peace agreement with Israel, liberals would have much more power to force the parties, Hezbollah included, to focus on policy rather than politics, good governance rather than resistance.

Part of the problem here is the Western and Israeli idea that Arabs are by their very nature incapable of democratic rule, that they only understand force. This is not the case, any more than it was for the Spanish under Franco, Portuguese under Salazar, Chileans under Santiago Pinochet or Kenyans under arap Moi.

Furthermore, “democracy promotion” at the end of a gun in the Middle East has relied on undemocratic neighboring countries that are considered “moderate” merely because they play ball on Washington’s terms. What about Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and until recently, Pakistan, just to name a few? Undemocratic regimes in these countries have been supported and often strengthened in order to support democracy elsewhere to the detriment to the peoples of those countries. If we’re interested in promoting democracy as a principle and not just in countries that have hostile regimes, isn’t that robbing Peter to pay Paul?

Right now, the American Department of Defense has effectively taken over the portfolio of foreign relations. There are now currently more servicemen and women playing in military bands than there are Foreign service officers in the State Department. This is a sign of how Washington sees its relations with the rest of the world, and while I hope that Obama can start to restore some of the balance between muscle and diplomacy, this is an inbalance that has taken many years and administrations (both Republican and Democratic) to establish. The pendulum, then, will likely take a long time to swing back to a more central position.

To make a long story short, when all you’ve got is a really big hammer, everything looks like a nail. So maybe it’s time we start investing in some more diverse tools.

UPDATE: I’ve just edited an embarrassing mistake about King Mohammad’s name brought to my attention by the erudite Qifa. Hassan was the father, Mohammad the son. Sorry for the mixup. Likewise, Santiago is the capital of Chile, not the former dictator, who was Pinochet. That’ll teach me to smoke arguileh and type at the same time.



  1. Thanks for your insightful post, Sean. Just 2 little remarks..

    Concerning Morocco I think you refer to King Muhammad, who currently is on the throne in Rabat investigating the rule of his father. And concerning Chile I guess you refer to Pinochet, not Santiago.

  2. Thanks for the corrections, and thanks for stopping by, mein Freund.

  3. You have changed the subject. The subject was, Iraq and how to remove Saddam Hussein. There was no liberal alternative to Saddam. It would have taken decades to change things your way. Should the world have let Saddam and then his sons stay in power?

    Seriously, read your post. It is just excuses why the liberals are not faring well against the dictators and the islamists. The problem is not the US or Israel or the dictators. It is YOU. Liberalism does not mean pacificism. Liberty costs much blood. And you are just not willing to pay it, unlike the Israelis and Americans and Islamists.

    Once you LEAD an effort in which you are sacrificing you will get respect and support. That is how Hizballah gained prominence. Are you willing to make sacrifices like them? If not, you will just be passive spectators that complain on blogs.

  4. AIG is asking the wrong question. The real question is: what gives the United States the right to forcibly overthrow the government of another country, even one as brutal’s as Saddam’s?

  5. Peter,
    Discussing rights and complaining is a great hobby. But it gets you nowhere. And by the way, the answer to your question is so simple that I don’t know why even ask it. If you haven’t noticed, when it comes to relations between countries, might makes right.

    But you do highlight one of the main problems inflicting Arab liberalism. It is so much easier to complain about the US then do something about the dictators ruling the Arab countries. And it is often done from within the US.

    Truly, is this a course of action that will get you anywhere? Is Khoury arguing with Hitchens going to change anything in Lebanon or should Khoury really be standing up to Hizballah and others in Lebanon? Khoury of course chooses the easy route but one that will never lead to results. Go figure.

  6. No, in fact, the subject has not changed. Iraq is a perfect example of a lack of imagination and patience. If it had taken decades for Iraq to transition to a democracy, I think that would probably have been better than the close to 1 million people who have died in Iraq as a result of the invasion. But if there were to be a violent overthrow of the Ba’ath regime, it seems to me that that would be best left to the Iraqi people, who had been betrayed by the West for decades before that, when Saddam was sold chemical weapons and his foreign aid was increased (after Halabja, mind you).

    Democratic norms and the rule of law have taken a long time to take root in Western countries and was not imposed at the end of a barrel of a gun. this is not to say that dictators should get a free pass, on the contrary. I’m an interventionist when it comes to aggression against another country (Kuwait 1991) or genocide (the al-Anfal campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan), but neither of those conditions had been met in 2003. Likewise, while I’m all for diplomacy and making sure that everyone gets a seat at the table, I’m against supporting abusive undemocratic regimes just because they’re “moderate.” Iran, for instance, is much more democratic than Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

    Otherwise, I agree that these days, the islamists are the only ones who have much grassroots credibility. Part of that is because here in Lebanon, at least, there is no real liberal opposition, and Hezbollah is leaps and bounds ahead of anyone else in terms of organization and discipline. However, another reason why islamists have a leg up is because the liberals are constantly undermined by the US and Israel. The recent war in Gaza and the 2006 war in Lebanon have done a lot to strengthen Hamas and Hezbollah.

    Ironically, belligerent people like you, AIG, despite all the venomous rhetoric against the resistance camp, are the best players on their team.

  7. Right, Lincoln should not have fought to free the slaves because 600,000 American lives was too much to pay to abolish slavery. With patience, the South would have abolished slavery by itself.

    Of course dictators should not get a free pass, they should just stay in power forever because they know that even the so called “liberals” in the Arab world support that. Your argument would have been somewhat convincing if you could have shown me any progress in Iraq towards democracy. But under Saddam there was none.

    I really don’t understand you. Had you been an average Kurd or Shia Iraqi living in Iraq, would you not have wanted someone to topple Saddam? Would you have had patience for decades?

    I would also have preferred that “moderate regimes” would not have been supported. But what to do? Countries have to balance long and short term interests.

    There you go again blaming the US and Israel. Wake up and smell the roses. The dictators are YOUR problem. Hizballah after 2006 is YOUR problem. You have no credibility because you are not willing to sacrifice ANYTHING for your fight for freedom. Not because of what Israel and the US do or don’t do. Why is your cause harmed by the US or Israel? Make it your goal to have a system like in France, not like the one in the US or Israel.

    What venomous rhetoric against the “resistance” camp are you accusing me of? I think they are utterly misguided but I respect their willingness to fight and die. What I hold in utter contempt are people that call themselves liberals that try to justify the “resistance” actions and are not willing to fight for what they believe. What I totally disrespect are “liberals” that don’t take responsibility but blame others for their situation.

    Israel and the US owe you nothing. Nations will pursue their own interests, nothing more. If you want help from the US, show the US how you can be helpful to it. Can you fight terrorism now, or will you tell the US to wait decades? You want Israel not to attack Gaza? Show that you can convince Hamas to stop its violence. And if you can’t be useful, then at the very least show that you can impede things, like Syria claims to be able.

    I am not being belligerent. The last thing I want is a war. I am being pragmatic and realistic. It is just that I read Khoury and ask myself: What productive thing has this guy ever done to bring peace and democracy to the middle east? And my answer is always: zero. He is great at seminars and writing English opinion pieces. But on the ground, where it counts, his influence is ZERO simply because he is afraid to confront anybody in Lebanon. He is just brave confronting the US and Israel.

  8. Did you really just compare Bush and Lincoln? The question is not whether Lincoln, who was fighting as much to preserve the union as much as he was to free any slaves, should have used force against the south.

    Lincoln, of course, was the duly and democratically elected president of the United States. If you’d like to make a parallel to America in the 1860s, you’d have to ask whether Napoleon III should have invaded the South to emancipate the slaves.

    Finally, you’re mixing your reasoning here. On the one hand, we’re talking about a moral struggle to liberate people, but when I show that to do that, the US has actually strengthened plenty of other despicable and undemocratic regimes, you shift to the language of “national interest,” which is fine and good, only that I see very little national interest (enlightened or otherwise) in having invaded Iraq. So morally, it doesn’t make much sense to me considering the effects so far, and strategically, it’s been an absolute disaster.

    But if you’d like to continue comparing Lincoln and George Bush, be my guest. However, I’m afraid it will be hard for people to take you very seriously.

    And as long as we’re calling people out for not being willing to die for their beliefs, why weren’t you in Gaza last Christmas? Because your IP address puts you in New Jersey.

  9. Sean,

    It is you who are mixing things up. It is quite simple. It is the interest of the US that there will be true democracies in the middle east. This would make the middle east much more stable and would give its frustrated youth hope thus resulting in much less terrorism. Iraq was a good a place as any to start. We’ll see in 10 years. What is a better course of action? To do nothing and wait till the Islamists take over every Arab country? Or that the Arab countries degenerate into civil war? The Arab world does not have decades to get rid of the dictators before its economic and demographic problems sink it.

    The question that should be asked is if Napoleon the III attacked the south and freed the slaves at the cost of 600,000 people dead, would you have said that he had done something wrong? Would the slaves have complained like you do? I don’t think so.

    Coming back to Bush vs. Lincoln. Imagine that the civil was was inconclusive and neither side would have won and the slaves would not have been freed. This could easily have happened. You would have said that Lincoln was an idiot and a murderer because 600,000 people died in the process for no good purpose. That is why the example is relevant. Much of what humans do depends on luck. When you make judgments you have to take this into account.

    I was 10 years in the IDF and did my share for my country. I live in Israel and use my company’s NJ server as a proxy server. How about you? Did you ever risk your life for what you believe? Or do you prefer arguing with Americans and Israelis instead of standing up to Hizballah?

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