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Chait On The Democracy Paradox

Jon Chait's catalogue of the ways in which Bush has failed to act as a consistent democracy-promoter abroad should be familiar to readers, but the conclusion adds some worthwhile analytic heft that's often missing from these accounts:

Bush and his supporters act as if anti-Americanism is simply the necessary and worthwhile price we pay for our principled advocacy of freedom everywhere. The truth is that anti-Americanism has prevented us from consistently advocating democracy throughout the world. And the inconstancy of our belief in democracy — which the citizens of pro-American dictatorships everywhere have noticed and exploited — makes anti-Americanism all the worse. There may be a way out of this dilemma, but preaching the universality of democracy and practicing otherwise is surely not it.
Quite so. I should say that it really isn't especially obvious what the way out of this dilemma is, but I think it's obvious that some combination of rolling back the rhetoric and stepping up the policymaking would be the right way to go. Finding the precise sweet spot is hard, but letting rhetoric and policy grow so desperately out-of-whack digs us into an ever-deeper hole. The problem is that, for obvious reasons, Americans are nowhere near as aware of what our actual policies are in various regions as are the people who live in those regions themselves. That makes this sort of dishonest presentation a very tempting political strategy.

October 22, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

So if we can't democratize the entire world at once we shouldn't democratize the world starting with Afghanistan and Iraq? That makes sense. And this is supposed to be the "Reality Based Community."

Posted by: Modern Crusader | Oct 22, 2004 4:11:53 PM

Modern Crusader is right. The "Reality Based Community" in is clearly not living in reality here... apparently the ONLY two options we have are (1) to simultaneously democratize everywhere in the entire world or (2) don't democratize anywhere ever. Duh.

Posted by: Al | Oct 22, 2004 4:21:10 PM

I would argue that the United States should democratize itself first. Bush received 543,289 less votes than Gore, yet still is Presisent.

The Senate is a wasteland of elitist obfuscation.

I suppose the diction of "paradox" is correct assuming one would ever approach Bush with the frame of reference that he truly ever could espouse Democracy.

I don't understand why Chait and others ever choose that path with the screaming results of undemocratic behavior in election 2000.

I thought Chait was brighter than this.

Posted by: paradox | Oct 22, 2004 4:22:04 PM

There is no paradox here. There is just the dilemma of what do you want most; short term geopolitical gains or long term alliances? It's also important to understand that we won't trust you any easier that you would trust China. Getting us to trust you requires much more consistency, sacrifice and effort that you Americans think. Just because you see yourselves as the good guys doesn't mean everybody else believes it.

Posted by: Carlos | Oct 22, 2004 4:30:20 PM

This is a pretty old problem, and reminds me of a book by Edgar Snow called People on Our Side. In about 1944 Snow traveled around the world interviewing leaders of colonized peoples, in other words, the leaders who might become prominent in a post-colonial world. At the time there was a widespread feeling that the America of FDR was basically opposed to the colonial empires of France and Britain, and would probably try to help emerging democracies.

After the war, of course, there was a lot of disillusionment as the U.S. helped the French try to get back in power, sponsored the overthrow of the Iranian republic, etc etc etc. Americans pretty much consider this to be 'old history' because, after all, the CIA and our military went on to murder almost everyone involved in the postwar efforts to develop post-colonial democracy.

That would be different, of course, from the persistent and deepseated grudge nursed by some veterans at not receiving a hero's welcome when they came back from Vietnam.

If you take a felt-tip pen and a cheap globe and mark every country where the U.S. has supported a brutal dictatorship or overthrown a democratic government, it will help you understand why 'democracy' is no longer linked in most peoples minds with the U.S..

Posted by: serial catowner | Oct 22, 2004 4:43:45 PM

Its the hypocrisy stupid.


The central findings of polling by the Pew Charitable Trust and others, he said, is that large majorities in much of the world "view us as a hypocritical huge beast throwing our weight around in the Middle East.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A52673-2004Oct21.html

Posted by: Harold Babar | Oct 22, 2004 4:55:37 PM

Not to toot my own horn, but there's a good discussion of the democracy paradox here.

Posted by: praktike | Oct 22, 2004 4:56:10 PM

The problem is that, for obvious reasons, Americans are nowhere near as aware of what our actual policies are in various regions as are the people who live in those regions themselves. That makes this sort of dishonest presentation a very tempting political strategy. This has always been my unspoken assumption--"if only the people knew, and could organize and be heard, our policies could change." But the assumption is that most of us Americans do in fact value the principles of democracy and The Republic,and not just their application here--that most of us would really would think these principles are worth making sacrifices for. It assumes that most Americans wouldn't really want to be hypocrites on this crucial issue if they had their druthers, and that the main obstacles are the ignorance of most American citizens, and also the common lack of active power in the system.

My question is--do we have any good, statistical, survey-type evidence to back this assumption up? I recall hearing about a recent Economist article arguing that this assumption is false.

Posted by: Saheli | Oct 22, 2004 4:58:40 PM

I think that what's really going on is that many conservatives don't really believe in democracy---they believe in good government, and "democracy" is a stand-in term for this. What is good government, to a conservative? I'm not sure what the precise definition is, but for a government to be a good government, it must at least be an enthusiastic supporter of the US and capitalism.

Posted by: Daryl McCullough | Oct 22, 2004 5:09:35 PM

I think the folks at Crooked Timber had a post that resolved the tensions MattY notes (as well as Praktike -- more on that later). US support of demcoracy is instrumental -- the US supports democracy so long as that furthers US interest.

The biggest thing 9/11 changed was the attitudes towards this 'instrument' on the part of conservatives. Frex, Mark Steyn wrote how democracy was needed to prevent another 9/11. The cost of more democracy in Egpyt -- more anti-US rhetoric, less hosptiable environment for US corporations, bad environment for Israel, was now viewed as smaller than the benefit -- fewer Egyptian hijackers crashing into big US buildings.

But the purpose of democracy-promotion hasn't changed, just the relative tradeoff. The US will still, in practice, support democracy over dictators if it is in US interests. All the rest is just smokescreen.

It's a fair question whether the rhetorical smokescreen (freedom is on the march, etc) undermines democracy promotion where it is actually in US interests to have a democracy (e.g. Iran). I think it does,

(As for Praktike's horn tooting, I thought it was no good. Zakaria desrves a far more critical reception, especially when you realize that one of his 'illiberal democracies' -- Maharashtra -- is really pretty damn good, so long as you aren't a member of the secular Muslim elite (e.g Zakaria's family). By all means, give Beinart a rought time, but don't swallow Zakaria's bilge in doing so.)

Posted by: Ikram | Oct 22, 2004 5:15:49 PM

I'll see your puppies and raise you an ostrich.

http://www.democrats.org/eagle/

Posted by: Harold Babar | Oct 22, 2004 5:20:41 PM

"Americans are nowhere near as aware of what our actual policies are in various regions as are the people who live in those regions themselves."

I read the papers and I am usually pretty unsure about what our actual policies are. What is our strategic policy toward Venezuela,Myanmar,Nigeria?
I have spent a couple years closely studying Iraq, and Bushco could still be trying to install Chalabi, the apparent animosity just being a cover. I trust no one, believe nothing.

Sometimes I fear MY is getting to the point where assistant under-secretaries are whispering in his ear:"Hey, Matt, this is what is really going on."

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 22, 2004 5:26:52 PM

The question was asked, "shouldn't we democratize Iraq and Afghanistan first?" I think the answer is, first, that we have no way to do so. Democracy requires an infrastructure of some form of government to run elections, to structure how candidates get on ballots, to count the votes, and to declare winners. That infrastructure doesn't exist in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Second, we have to want the people of Iraq and Afghanistan to chose a government they want, as opposed to one that we want. And, we don't. When we constrain the process so as to produce a result we are happy with, we are not allowing real democracy to happen.

I also agree that we need to do a lot of work on our own form of government to achieve democracy for ourselves too. First, of course, the electoral college has to go, then the Senate has to be restructured to give everyone's vote equal weight. And, we have to have a federal control over the mechanisms of elections, and not allow individual states to set conflicting rules for how each of them runs an election. None of this is likely to happen in the next 20 years.

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Oct 22, 2004 5:27:35 PM

Naiveté is getting dense here. Why would anyone in the right mind believe a single word of domestic propaganda? Democracy my ass.

Once they started talking about democracy, it's a sure sign they're training death squads and secret police somewhere. Always assume it's the opposite, always; works 100% of the time.

Well, maybe not 100%. The post-communist Polish government got kinda sloppy last year. BBC:
Poland seeks Iraqi oil stake
Poland, which has sent troops to support the US-led forces in Iraq, has acknowledged its "ultimate objective" is to acquire supplies of Iraqi oil.

Posted by: abb1 | Oct 22, 2004 5:59:21 PM

Ikram, I'm crushed. Tell me more. I admit I don't know too much about India.

Posted by: praktike | Oct 22, 2004 6:06:10 PM

"The question was asked, "shouldn't we democratize Iraq and Afghanistan first?" I think the answer is, first, that we have no way to do so. Democracy requires an infrastructure of some form of government to run elections, to structure how candidates get on ballots, to count the votes, and to declare winners. That infrastructure doesn't exist in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Second, we have to want the people of Iraq and Afghanistan to chose a government they want, as opposed to one that we want. And, we don't. When we constrain the process so as to produce a result we are happy with, we are not allowing real democracy to happen."

Well, I guess Madison and company weren't on board with "real democracy", given that they went out of their way to constrain the process and place lots of things off-limits to even democratic majorities.

I'd say it's perfectly appropriate to constrain democracy to reduce the influence of oppressive elements. The whole point of democracy, after all, is to produce a government that guards liberty instead of destroying it, and when a democratic majority is openly hostile to the very idea of liberty, it's time for a little constrainment on the process.

It's kind of interesting, though, that the administration that turned Afghanistan into a democracy and is set to do the same to Iraq is painted as hostile to democracy abroad...

Posted by: Ken | Oct 22, 2004 7:47:37 PM

"So if we can't democratize the entire world at once we shouldn't democratize the world starting with Afghanistan and Iraq? That makes sense."

YOU SHOULD START BY DEMOCRATIZING THE TROUBLEMAKER ISRAEL.

"but preaching the universality of democracy and practicing otherwise is surely not it."

The US may be HYPOCRITES when it comes to preaching democracy, but ISRAEL IS FAR WORSE.

Israel claims to be the only "democracy in the middle east", yes indeed,

the only "democracy in the middle east" that refuses to let 3,000,000 people living within its borders vote.

It has refused to let these three million vote in Israeli elections even though they have been occupied by the Jews for some 37 years.

Israel is not a democracy in any western sense.

Posted by: Nmlss | Oct 22, 2004 7:51:18 PM

An extremist I agree with for once. Israel is not a democracy because the left-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, yimach shmo (may his name and memory be obliterated), is a antisemitic dictator who plans to unilaterally ethnically cleanse Gaza and Samaria of Jews and make all of Yesha Judenrein (Jew free).

We should have regime change in Israel too, but first we should have regime change in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

And terrorists would have the right to vote if Arafat gave them the right. We should also bomb Arafat's Ramallah terror lair. That's the only way terrorists will have the right to vote.

Posted by: Modern Crusader | Oct 22, 2004 8:04:51 PM

It's kind of interesting, though, that the administration that turned Afghanistan into a democracy and is set to do the same to Iraq is painted as hostile to democracy abroad...

When Bush tells the Sauds where they can stick themselves instead of bending over backwards over an oil barrel, then you might have a point.

Posted by: D. | Oct 22, 2004 9:18:22 PM

Israel is not a democracy because the left-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, yimach shmo (may his name and memory be obliterated)...

When did Yigal Amir get Internet access?

Posted by: D. | Oct 22, 2004 9:19:40 PM

My children,

As the Lord Almighty, I can tell with a fair amount of certainty (omniscence and all that) that in a hypothetical second Bush term he would nothing to pursue energy independence, which is of course a necessary precursor to pressuring Saudi Arabia and certain other smaller gulf states into reform. I can also tell you with a fair amount of certainty that in a hypothetical second Bush term he would do nothing to resolve the Israeli-Palestenian conflict, and therefore would have little leverage with Egypt to promote democracy there. As you Americans may recall, the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and these countries continue to be the chief crucibles of anti-American terrorism in the Arab world.

Affectionately,

God

Posted by: God | Oct 22, 2004 10:31:01 PM

Oh, and Mr. Crusader,

I suggest you get some help for your sexual perversions. You and I both know what I'm talking about.

Affectionately,

God

Posted by: God | Oct 22, 2004 10:34:54 PM

Kenneth Pollack (of all the supporters of a war in Iraq) made the point about how democracy has become a dirty word due to its associations with negatively-perceived American culture.

Posted by: PG | Oct 22, 2004 10:50:53 PM

"As you Americans may recall, the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt"

This is incorrect. Since it is apparent from articles such as this BBC piece:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/middle_east/newsid_1559000/1559151.stm

the "hijackers" (if there where any at all) used false identities, hence could have in fact come from anywhere. Anywhere except Saudi Arabia and Egypt (because you do not use false ids that point to yourselves). Yes, they were more likely to have come from Israel than Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

The head of the FBI admitted that the identities of the hijackers was unknown (yet wars were and are to be started over this "small" matter) in this article:

http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/09/21/inv.id.theft/

For more on this see: Many 9-11 "Hijackers" are Still Alive and Well

and Stranger Than Fiction.

Posted by: Nmlss | Oct 23, 2004 12:09:18 AM

Thank God. Now that God is posting comments here makes this a much more reality-based community.

Posted by: Drew - Dallas, TX | Oct 23, 2004 12:14:56 AM

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