« Wither Reflective Equilibrium | Main | Imagine... »

The Democratic Revolution

Ross Douthat's doing yeoman's work trying to debunk blogospheric overenthusiasm for "supporting the democratic revolution" as a solution to all our policy problems in the Middle East. I should say that I would put rather less weight than Ross does on the purported strategic undesirability of democracies in many of these cases. Even if a democratic Iran wouldn't all of a sudden adopt friendly views on every front, it would be better in most respects. At a simple baseline level, democracies are more amenable to economic carrots and sticks because elected leaders face stronger pressures to deliver the goods to their population. The idea that the Egyptian regime is a significant strategic asset to the United States is, I think, outdated and short-sighted. One could go on.

The issue here is that Michael Ledeen and many others seem to view the "democratic revolution" as some kind of tap US policymakers can turn on and off at will. It doesn't work that way. Western efforts at democracy-promotion have been successful in the Ukraine, but this required both a united front between the US and Europe and just the right constellation of forces inside the country. Even there, it took a long time, and a very large minority of the population preferred to vote their ethnolinguistic loyalties rather than back a reformist candidate who was also seen as culturally alien. It's all very complicated, highly unpredictable, and rather touch-and-go. This isn't, to my mind, a reason not to do what we can do promote democratic reform in Middle Eastern countries. It is, however, a reason to be realistic about what we can achieve and the likelihood of short-term success. The Soviet Union didn't collapse just because Ronald Reagan asked Mr. Gorbachev to tear his wall down. Hope is not a plan.

Notably, it's worth looking at where we have real leverage. In Iran, we don't have much, and we do have a pressing strategic issue (i.e., the nuclear program) that it makes sense to focus our leverage on. Moreover, Iranians are not seriously confused as to where the United States stands on the issue of Khomeinism. If you look, by contrast, at Egypt, we have significantly more leverage. Not in the sense that we can say, "hey! be a democracy!" and it'll happen, but real possibilities exist for us to press for change. And ordinary Egyptians really aren't sure that we favor political reform in their home country. Simply positioning ourselves as being in favor of giving the population control over the government will pay off dividends if they ever get it, simply by putting ourselves ahead of the curve. Currently, we're viewed in the Arab world as propping up the regimes outside the Iran-Syria-Lebanon belt, not merely against would-be radical Islamist dictators, but against against everyone. This is not a useful perception to us, but it is a perception that's at least grounded in reality, if not 100% accurate. In both cases I think we should do what we can and hope for the best. But we can neither assume that "what we can" will work, nor assume that it working will solve all our problems. Policy needs to be pursued on multiple tracks. We bargaining with the Soviet regime even as we sought ways to bring it to an end.

December 29, 2004 | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Democratic Revolution:


> At a simple baseline level, democracies are
> more amenable to economic carrots and sticks
> because elected leaders face stronger
> pressures to deliver the goods to their
> population.

Whereas I don't think any self-respecting entity, be it an individual, tribe, or nation-state, really responds to carrots-and-sticks. Very short term, maybe. Medium-to-long term the only result is that the entity fixes the stick in their mind as something to use to hurt the wieldier as soon as they can.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Dec 29, 2004 1:43:07 PM

Now, why does Matt say that Egyptians aren't sure we favor reform- why, I'll bet that right now there's a radio program telling the mid-east how much we're in favor of democracy. Won't we get credit eventually for having said strongly that we like democracy?

Posted by: serial catowner | Dec 29, 2004 1:56:43 PM

At a simple baseline level, democracies are more amenable to economic carrots and sticks because elected leaders face stronger pressures to deliver the goods to their population.

This really has little to do with "democracy" so much as societies possessed of a susbtantial and influential independent media that isn't either an organ or a lapdog of the government; without the outlet of legitimate dissent, people that don't get the goods they expect in a dictatorship still register their objections -- it just tends to be more forceful, when it comes to it -- and it can be much harder to credibly shift blame when you claim absolute control. Whereas in a democracy, one can always point to some other faction that holds some public office (even if, as is currently the case in the US, that faction is an opposition that is in control of none of the real levers of power) to deflect blame from the current leadership, so long as the dominant media outlets cooperate.

Posted by: cmdicely | Dec 29, 2004 2:01:05 PM

"The idea that the Egyptian regime is a significant strategic asset to the United States is, I think, outdated and short-sighted."

I think it's a tough call. From the issues described here, it does seem that the Egyptian gov't is willing to exert a moderating influence on other governments both in Africa and the Middle East. And their crucial to a settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I would think. Without Egypt being willing to step up in Gaza, for example, the Israelis wouldn't be talking about pulling out of there. But there are probably lots of things we can do. Good discussion of the issues here.

Posted by: praktike | Dec 29, 2004 2:09:17 PM

Deep and sensible analysis.

A big question, though, is "what if a democratic Egypt said 'ah, we don't want your Carter/Sadat-era payoffs; we want to hurt Israel again'?"

Then all hell would certainly break loose.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Dec 29, 2004 2:16:37 PM

I'm confused.....who are we that we have the right to dictate how other countries run themselves and their business? The great Messianic nation predestined to save the world by instilling our way of life into their worlds? And accomplish it by killing or maiming all who disagree with us?

That's exactly what Hitler thought. Exactly.

Posted by: Deborah White | Dec 29, 2004 3:23:16 PM

Sometimes I wish I lived in what Matt calls "reality". In that reality, Islamist dictators are "would-be", and the biggest concern for making foreign policy is our popularity. In that reality, giving Egypt $2 bln yearly aid actually pays off. I guess this is the kind of reality you end up in, when Harvard gives you good grades despite huge gaps in logic - just for writing sentenses that sound "intellectual" and politically correct. Well, that last one is probably unfair to Matt, but it is fair to Harvard.

"The Soviet Union didn't collapse just because Ronald Reagan asked Mr. Gorbachev to tear his wall down."
You're right, honey. It collapsed because Reagan spent money on defense that we couldn't match - instead of spending it on handouts to make everybody like you.

At other times, however, I am rather glad that Matt's reality only exists in the minds of the "reality-based community". Because otherwise, my homeland would probably still be a dictatorship. Otherwise, my only hope of defending liberty would lie with perpetually infantile university professors. Otherwise, my Ukranian friends would have little hope for a decent future. And yes, hope is less than a plan, but it's much more than the delusional "realists" ever offer.

Posted by: Ivan Lenin | Dec 29, 2004 4:21:35 PM

Jeez, IvanLenin, you make some good points, but why do you feel compelled to resort to personal insults? It really detracts from your argument.

I agree that $2B a year is a much more significant lever than less tangible "carrots and sticks." And I totally agree that, in the case of Egypt for example, we should be very thankful for classic second-world strongmen, in the absence of whom Egypt would almost certainly be a more serious threat to Israel, and thus to peace in the Middle East.

I certainly do NOT agree that the Soviet Union "collapsed because Reagan spent money on defense that we couldn't match." The Soviet system had a lot of serious flaws that led to its re-structuring (some things are different, but others aren't), but I definitely do NOT think that inability to match US military expenditures (which were extravagant and highly susceptible to corruption) materially threatened its existence. Don't let's forget that they had -- and have -- rather a lot of powerful nuclear weapons, which were -- and could be again -- targeted at the US.

Posted by: bleh | Dec 29, 2004 4:52:26 PM

Ivan Levin, did you know that the U.S. is currently in the process of phasing out our grants to Egypt?

Education pays off sometimes.

Posted by: praktike | Dec 29, 2004 4:59:41 PM


There aren't any radical Islamist dictators "outside the Iran-Syria-Lebanon belt" (as MY would have it) in the Middle East. Unless you count Turabi (who isn't in the ME) or the Saudis. But since the "radical Islamists" are the enemies of the Saudis, that would be stupid. So, yes, "would-be." As in the Arab public perceives that the US props up the regimes of Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States against radical Islamists who "would [like to] be" dictators. Learn to read English.

Posted by: Handle | Dec 29, 2004 5:08:13 PM

I tried to keep my remarks on the level adequate to the pompous "reality-based" assertion, that Matt proudly makes. To say these words with a serious face is to ask for ridicule.

Anyway, what I was trying to do was tease and not insult, and if I failed, I apologize.

I absolutely agree that the Soviet system had flaws that were the real cause for collapse. One of the results of those flaws was an increasingly weak economy that could not support the Communists' political aspirations. Reagan simply exploited that weakness, and it worked. Besides spending money, he did something that some may see as a merely symbolic thing: I am referring to the word "evil" in his "evil empire" clause. If you read Sharansky, who was in Gulag at the time, you will realize what a serious boost it gave to the anti-Soviet movement in Russia. The dissidents felt that they had an aliance with a serious power, that was determined to actively oppose their oppressors. This is something that Muslim women of the world, and all Muslims that want a civilized life, currently don't have - and something that certain Matt's readers don't want them to have, saying "who are we that we have the right to dictate how other countries run themselves", comparing such view to Hitler's, and emphasizing the word "exactly". According to them, "exactly" is exacly how similar we are to Nazi Germany. Such thinking, btw, is exactly what inspires people like me to resort to personal attacks: being from the USSR, I really don't like it when Hitler's victims memory is desecrated by this kind of Chomskism.

Posted by: Ivan Lenin | Dec 29, 2004 5:24:40 PM

Western efforts at democracy-promotion have been successful in the Ukraine...

Bullshit. Rather: western efforts at supporting the western-leaning candidate have been successful.

Name one example where the US 'promoted' democracy to the advantage of an anti-US candidate. Venezuela, anyone?

Posted by: abb1 | Dec 29, 2004 5:27:50 PM

No, I didn't, but if you provide a link, I will. Btw, there is a big difference between education and possession of data. I mention it in case you need some, uhmm, education ;)

Posted by: Ivan Lenin | Dec 29, 2004 5:29:27 PM

> I'm confused.....who are we that we have the
> right to dictate how other countries run
> themselves and their business?

I have been asking that question in a number of forums, left and right, for the last two year. I haven't received a good answer yet. Let me know if you do.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Dec 29, 2004 5:47:46 PM

What right do we have to have a foreign policy? I've been waiting for an answer half of my life, and all I recieved was a postcard from Barbra Streisand, commending me on my multicultural sensitivity.

Posted by: Ivan Lenin | Dec 29, 2004 5:59:47 PM

Ivan Lenin:

Speaking of oppressed Muslim women (and I think the treatment of women in the Muslim world is the single most important difference between them and the West): you do know that women in Iraq were more the equal to men under Saddam than currently, don't you? And this will no doubt be true when we leave, and Iranian born Ayatollahs are calling the shots.

As for your buying into Reagan's self-congratulatory fantasy that he brought down the "evil empire" (not 50 years of George Kennan's containment philosophy, or the military buildup that began under CARTER not Reagan): makes for a nice story, that's about all.

It was conservative orthodoxy (promulgated by Jeanne Kirkpatrick first, I think) that no Communist regime would fall without violence. Gorbachev is the hero of the fall of the Soviet Union. They did not need to go quietly into the night.

Posted by: epistemology | Dec 29, 2004 5:59:56 PM

Reagan himself (like Bill Buckley, but unlike most of his right-wing admirers) at least had sense enough to realize that trying to force the Soviet Union into a corner through a tidal wave of military spending -- and through the construction of a Star Wars system that conceivably might work, and thus allow the US to launch a first strike with impunity -- would stand an excellent chance of causing the Soviet regime not to give up power peacefully, but instead to gamble on launching a first strike against us BEFORE it was certain to lose WW III. (If Andropov -- who was downright paranoid about the West -- had stayed in power, precisely this might well have happened.) Which is why Reagan -- entirely contrary to trying to use Star Wars and his other military spending to force the USSR into collapse, as his numerous sappier admirers now insist he did -- repeatedly offered to give the USSR a DUPLICATE of it. As he told Gorbachev at Reykjavik: "If I didn't think this system could be shared, I would never have proposed it." Hardly the words of a man trying to force the USSR into collapse through military-economic pressure. Like every president before him, he was simply trying to continue containing the USSR, and praying that at some point, when it finally did collapse, it might do so peacefully. Which, quite against the odds, is what finally happened, thanks to its drawing the right leader -- not to Reagan's pressure.

As for fomenting democratic revolution in Moslem countries: the trouble is that in that case -- unlike with Communism -- we're pitted against a very widespread and popular religion, entirely separate from the incumbent government, which ITSELF has strongly anti-democratic and anti-liberal tendencies. Ivan's suggestion that we promulgate women's liberation -- or other forms of political and cultural liberalization -- in that area is at least as likely to make more enemies among the region's people themselves as it is to make new friends for us. The trouble is precisely that huge numbers of Moslems, although they hate their current secular tyrannies, are convinced that the preferable alternative is NOT secular democracy but Islamic theocracy. Ledeen -- who, like most self-declared Neocon Realists, is about as realistic as Edward Lear -- insists with a straight face, for instance, that we should promulgate democratic revolution in Saudi Arabia, where a national poll -- whose results were classisifed by the Saudi government -- showed 98% of the populace admiring Bin Laden. One guess as to who their first elected leader would be.

The one exception is those Moslem regions who have already tried out Islamic theocracy and found that it too is a tyrannical and corrupt disaster. The trouble is that -- except for Iran -- almost nothing in the region has yet undergone a period of theocratic rule. Afghanistan (or at least those parts of it which are not so poverty-stricken and ignorant that they STILL prefer the Taliban to Karzai) is about it, although one recent article in (I believe) the Los Angles Times suggested that the inhabitants of the Iraqi Sunni triangle who are currently effectively governed by the insurgents are rapidly getting a bellyful of them. But until the people of this region have had an opportunity to try out Islamism, and discovered that it too is a lie and a fiasco, our attempts to lure them toward (as they see it)Godless Immoral Western Liberalism are doomed to total and ludicrous failure.

So our dilemma is that Mideast Moslems will never be willing to embrace tolerant democracy until they have undergone an intervening period of theocratic rule; but that period will take decades before the second wave of revolution overthrows it and replaces it with democracy -- and during those decades, whenever they finally do begin, we will be faced with the nightmarish problem of trying to keep nuclear (and powerful biological) weapons out of the hands of those theocratic tyrannies. Even in Iran, the mullahs still hold the whip hand and seem capable of delaying a genuninely democratic revolution there for some years. So, as Matt says, the obviously top-priority question is not how to encourage democratic revolution in Iran -- it's how to keep the Bomb out of the hands of the Mullahs until that revolution occurs. And even if the actions which we must ultimately carry out to do the latter turn the Iranian people back against us -- which they are very likely to do in the event that military strikes prove necessary -- we will have no choice but to carry them out. So, why, pray tell, isn't Ledeen talking about how to accomplish that task, instead of blathering that western propaganda in favor of secular democracy in Moslem countries is a magic fix-all?

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | Dec 29, 2004 6:11:36 PM

Cranky...Thank you! Now there are two of us asking that impudent question, anyway.

I have lately been reading an extraordinary book on Hitler. I just wrote a short comparison of Bush and Hitler tactics at my blog.

It scares me. Think I'll check the book back in at my local library. :)

Posted by: Deborah White | Dec 29, 2004 6:12:05 PM

It is worthwhile to point out that the 1989-1999 collapse of the Soviet empire was by no means a foreordained thing (conservatives were just as surprised by it as liberals). If someone as intelligent and ruthless as the short-lived Yuri Andropov had risen to the top of the heap in the Politburo, matters might have gone very differently. An Andropov-like leader may have had the smarts to accept that retrenchment was needed without setting in motion the economic and social reforms that Gorbachov lost control of, and that caused the whole system to begin unravelling. Alternatively, instead of holding their fire, the various Communist regime's security police and armies could have been ordered to slaughter thousands of demonstrators as they frantically struggled to stay in charge. If the KGB's 'Alpha' force had followed orders and attacked the Russian Parliament in August 1990, instead of unexpectedly throwing in their lot with Yeltsin, who knows what the result would have been? (The coup plotters had already wrested the Soviet nuclear arsenal's command-and-control codes--the famous "football"--from the imprisoned Gorbochov.)

The point of the foregoing is that excited gabbling about "democratic revolution" from the likes of a proven harebrain like Michael Ledeen is not much to go on. It doesn't help when doubters such as Russ Douthat are tarred as racists for having the temerity to poke a pin in the lotus-eaters visions.

Posted by: Aslan | Dec 29, 2004 6:13:08 PM

So our dilemma is that Mideast Moslems will never be willing to embrace tolerant democracy until they have undergone an intervening period of theocratic rule; but that period will take decades before the second wave of revolution overthrows it and replaces it with democracy

"Mideast Moslems" in Iran and Saudi Arabia, notably, have already "undergone an intervening period of theocratic rule" lasting "decades".

Posted by: cmdicely | Dec 29, 2004 6:20:29 PM

Gorbachev was as much "the hero of the fall" as Michael Moore is the beacon of decency. He did everything he could to keep the Communists in power, in case you forgot. All his liberalization policies were mostly due to the pressure that Reagan and Thatcher were putting on him. He didn't give up the power because he was such a lover of liberty: he did it because he had little choice, you genius.

As for your opinion about the differences between the West and the Muslim world, I don't really know where to start. Consider this: who wants to live in the West, and who wants to live in the Muslim world? How come people want to have rights, and all those other little things, that are in *reality* a fantasy made up by white-male-christian-capitalist baby-eaters?

Posted by: Ivan Lenin | Dec 29, 2004 6:23:12 PM

Ivan Lenin:

Compared to the sleazy tactics of Bush and Rove, Moore is the very avatar of decency. Or maybe you are new to this country and missed their hatchet job in S.C. on John McCain.

Gorbachev, a politician trying to hang onto power!! I am shocked, SHOCKED. Of course there is the little matter of not going to war for domestic political purposes (as Bush did in Iraq), which he could have done. He is the hero for the part of humanity that wanted to avoid nuclear conflagration.

Posted by: epistemology | Dec 29, 2004 6:46:44 PM

Your knowledge of the late Soviet events is impressive, but here's where I think you're wrong: it is not Gorbachev's reforms that caused the system to "begin to unravel". It was inherently unproductive, and by the late 70s- early 80s it became quite obvious to us, the ordinary citizens. From the Politburo members that were physically collapsing, to simple bread that Russia had to buy from Canada, to consumer goods that were getting more and more ridiculous compared to Western ones - all of it spoke of a downfall. If you read samizdat, or listen to Russian underground music of the early 80s, you will find an increased discontent with the social system. No Andropov, no matter how smart and ruthless, could have prevented it from happening. Delayed? Possibly, but not for long. It was falling apart with an increasing speed. Reagan's tough stand caused the Soviet press to get all vicious about Reagan, he was made out to look like Hitler, etc. What message did it send to the dissidents? It told them that the Politburo guys were scared. It told them that those oldfarts sucking blood out of everybody was not the only way, that things could be different. In his speeches, Reagan expressed that hope quite clearly, and in his policies, he put his money where his mouth was. I agree that overextatic American patriots give him too much credit for this, but I think that most doves underestimate his role.

Posted by: Ivan Lenin | Dec 29, 2004 6:52:55 PM

That's what Gorby himself says, Ivan (and what Daniel P. Moynihan predicted in 1979 would happen) -- but he adds that Reagan's first-term military threats (real and verbal) against the USSR actually DELAYED its unraveling. Whether that's true or not, and regardless of the extent to which Gorbachev was a real democrat, the fact remains that he had sense enough (and determination enough) to ensure that the Soviet tyranny collapsed with an utterly bloodless whimper rather than a probably nuclear bang -- which a large number, and maybe most, other possible Soviet leaders during this period would not have done. When push finally came to shove, he ultimately came down on the side of democracy (and did so at risk to his own life).

As for C.M. Dicely's comments: I pointed out, at length, that Iran has already had decades worth of theocratic rule and that most of its people are sick of it -- and I also pointed out that this doesn't begin to solve our problems, since the odds are still extremely high that its second revolution won't occur before the Mullahs get their hands on the Bomb and thus open a whole new universe of nightmarish possibilities. And as for Saudi Arabia: is it really necessary to point out that an overwhelming majority of its people agree with Bin Laden that its current regime is not nearly theocratic ENOUGH, and is in fact a Corrupt Pro-Western Godless Secular Tyranny which only makes weak vague gestures in the direction of true theocracy?

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | Dec 29, 2004 7:06:09 PM


Judging by your comparison of Bush + Rove to Michael Moore, you must be watching too many movies. Just because a person doesn't give orders to kill, doesn't mean they are less responsible for unnecessary deaths than those who do.

As for Gorbachev, he did not just try to personally "hang on to power". He sent troops in Vilnus, killing innocents which you probably don't care about, since they weren't killed by Republicans. His reforms were largely cosmetic, and he didn't just hang on to power: he hung on to Communism. He simply did a sloppy job at it. And the only thing he deserves credit for is not being suicidal and sending nukes across the Atlantic. Wanting to live is good, but it's not necessarily heroic.

Posted by: Ivan Lenin | Dec 29, 2004 7:07:59 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.