Bayou Calvinist

A Somewhat Eclectic Discussion by a Law Student Concerning All of Today's Major Topics, as well as, a Few Not So Major Topics

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Arab Democracy Equals Terrorism?

A well reasoned argument is found in the Los Angeles Times, in which Mark Helprin demonstrates that examples from history often belie the point of many pro-Democracy hawks that Democracies don't go to war with democracies. But in discounting some of the more grandiose claims made by the likes of Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Natan Sharansky, Helprin implies an even greater untruth. After reading this article one is incapable of being left with any view other than that the entire basis for Bush's foreign policy is mistaken. I will attempt, in a few words, to demonstrate that Helprin's implied assertion is based primarily upon mistakes made in his characterization of both the justifications and theories surrounding the Bush doctrine.

First, and possibly most importantly, Helprin wrongly suggests that Bush's admiration for a democratic middle east has led America's foreign policy off of a cliff into an idealistic strategic la la land where idealism trumps all other considerations. So important is this characterization of the Bush administration to Helprin's argument, he both begins and ends his article with it:

THE PRESIDENT believes and often states, as if it were a self-evident truth, that "democracies are peaceful countries." This claim, which has been advanced in the past in regard to Christianity, socialism, Islam and ethical culture, is the postulate on which the foreign policy of the United States now rests. Balance of power, deterrence and punitive action have been abandoned in favor of a scheme to recast the political cultures of broad regions, something that would be difficult enough even with a flawless rationale because the power of even the most powerful country in the world is not adequate to transform the world at will.

* * * * *

For the pleasure of displaying our virtue, we may someday suffer innumerable casualties in a terrorist attack that a compromised state might have helped us to prevent.

In foreign policy, carelessness and confusion often lead to tragedy. Thus, a maxim chosen to guide the course of a nation should be weighed in light of history and common sense.

Or is that too much to ask?

Bush and his administration have not forgotten the strategic tools of the past, they have simply redefined their relationship to broader goals. In other words if America could both deter her enemies and promote human rights; if she could both punish those whom wrong her while at the same time push for democratic reform; if America is able to change the balance of power to her advantage while at the same time advancing liberty in a part of the world not use to its presence, then why shouldn't she. Helprin's answer of course is that America cannot do both....and so should wisely choose to protect her own security at the expense of allowing others do what they will.

Helprin also seems to think that the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were begun for the simple reason of experimenting and testing this new democracy theory which those wily neo-conservatives of PNAC had been pushing for since the end of the last Gulf War.

This is flat wrong. It is true that many members of the now famous letter to then President Clinton from PNAC arguing for more aggressive action to be taken against Saddam Hussein also believed deeply that the greater purpose for America was spreading democracy. But it is also true that many of the members then looking for the overthrow of Saddam did so for the exact same strategic reasons to which Helprin now wishes so fervently for the U.S. foreign policy to return (see Richard Armitage, Francis Fukayama, and James Woolsey).

The most obvious reason for discounting any view that Bush decided to invade Iraq and Afghanistan simply to spread Democracy is because of what preceded these invasions...an attack on the American homeland not rivaled by anything in American history (I realize the many similarities with Pearl Harbor but even Pearl Harbor does not rise to the events of 9-11 for the simple fact of the differences in the targets of the two attacks). Afghanistan was not invaded for the simple purpose of spreading democracy, it had at least something to do with both revenge and deterrence (nothing deters future acts of terrorism by individuals and states like killing said individuals and states). Neither was Iraq merely a petri dish for testing theories of democracy. Despite the many second guessings of defeated or frightened politicians and hypocrites, no one (by no one, I mean no one who was taken seriously on either side of the Atlantic) doubted Saddam's WMD capabilities. And with that seemingly certain knowledge and the less certain knowledge (now ironically the one belief which has been confirmed) of Saddam's support and contacts with terror groups (including al Qaeda), it was a very traditional self defense argument that pushed America, the UK, Australia and thirty-something other nations into invading Iraq. Once we had dethroned the devilish tyrants who led these nations, placing a form of government in conformity with our greatest ideals should have been expected and sought. It appears then that there were and are many non-idealistic reasons for the current wars in which America now finds itself.

So what of Helprin's greater argument that suggests America's idealistic component...it's promotion of Democracy in the broader middle east (and the entire world for that matter)...some how contradicts our greater goal of national security. This, at least, is debatable. Helprin does a good job promoting the reasons for doubting the inteligence in America's attachment to her ideals in foreign affairs. But his argument has its own weaknesses.

First off, if his view of the perfect defense strategy comported perfectly with reality then there would be little reason for America to have changed its policies. Again this leads us to the question of what changed the status quo. Just as before what changed was September 11. It was, of course, not that the world actually changed on that day. But rather, our perceptions changed. It was as if a veil had been lifted. What we once saw as safety was suddenly revealed to be nothing more than a false mirage. One of the big reasons I would argue for the rise in terrorism is in fact the existence of so many despotic rulers in the middle east in the decades preceding 9-11. These tyrants ran their countries into the ground and then blamed their own failings on the outside world, and often they directed this venom at the convenient target of the U.S. In doing so they were able to delay the questioning by their own populace which would eventually have lead to their being held accountable for failings. Also with no outward vent for frustrated dreams (as well as oftentimes no window on the outside world) these same populations became easier prey for Islamists. Even those despots lovingly referred to as "our bastards" seem to have created more strategic trouble than they were worth. The house of Saud's spread of violent wahabism, the backlash to the American backed Shah of Iran, and the lack of thankfulness from the PA leaders past and present are just a trinity of examples. The simple fact remains that in the long run relying on dictators to promote American security is a losing hand.

Secondly, there is truth in the argument that if popular elections were held today throughout the middle east the results would probably give one pause and create justifiable panic throughout America and the west concerning their strategic future. This being said, however, it is premised on a rather short-sited view of America's strategic interests. While in the short term pro-American despots will lead to an increase in security and the promotion of democracy a relative decrease in the same...the long run view reveals just the inverse. So either America is left with no good option in fighting Islamic terrorism or perhaps democracy is the path to long term security.

Finally, in part (a very small part) I agree with Helprin. The administration needs to put more stock in changing the perception of America in the middle east. Despite popular belief this does not mean America should capitulate, in fact our strength (military and otherwise) can work to our advantage. But what I would argue works most to our advantage is the actual support of democratic institutions in the middle east. Those, in that region, who do not look upon any democratic reform as a good thing may in fact be beyond rehabilitation.

I feel that our democratic push is not only not a detriment but more likely one of our great weapons going forward.

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