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Interests, Democracy, and Partisanship

I got an email from David Adesnik yesterday clarifying a bit about realism, Kissinger, Lebanon, etc. What he thinks is Kissingerian about my view is its failure to recognize that the promotion of democracy, as such, is in our interests. It's an overly narrow view of the national interest. That makes more sense. I think it's right to say that, speaking broadly, the spread of democracy does advance American interests. But I also think that when you start speaking too broadly, what happens is that the concept of "interests" starts to lose its content. In this infinite horizon interests and ideals really don't conflict -- the creation of a world of stable, prosperous, liberal capitalist democracies can only be good for the people of the world and the people of the United States. Human interactions aren't zero sum. This is worth keeping in mind and ought to be, in some sense, the lodestar of all our thinking about everything.

In another sense, though, we make policy in the here and now. There are lots of different ways ideals could be realized, and we lack the capacity to do them all. A democratic Lebanon does, in some sense, serve American interests. So would the provision of clean drinking water to all the people of Africa. So would a lot of things. But we're not going to do them all. There are short-term limits to our capacities and a need to set priorities.

Lebanon, in my view, is not an especially important country to the United States of America right now. All else being equal, it's better for us for things to go well there. But not much better. Things could get really awful in Lebanon with no really noteworthy adverse effect on the United States, or things could get really fantastic with no really noteworthy positive effect on the United States. It matters -- everything matters -- but it doesn't matter very much. That's why the fact that the endeavors Bush has launched in that regard are low cost is important. Now let's note that even though I'm arguing with David, and David is usually much kinder than I to the Bush administration, I have absolutely no quarrel with the policies the administration is implementing here. I'm not sure if David's trying to say that he actually does have a quarrel with Bush's policy and thinks we ought to be doing a lot more than we're doing on that front. An alternative construal is that while I think Bush's handling of this has been good, but not earth-shatteringly important, David thinks it's been both important and crucial.

I don't know. But to re-iterate, what I do think is crucial on the democracy-promotion front is Egypt, which is a big and important country. Bush's policy toward Egypt has less fully approached being what I would be doing than has his Lebanon policy. But in an admission contrary to partisan interest, I think there's a very good chance that a Kerry administration would be handling Egypt in a way that I like less, putting no pressure on Mubarak for political reform whatsoever in order to better shore up Israel/Palestine diplomacy. In my experience, the disagreements that exist about the most important forward-looking questions in Middle East policy -- about Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia -- don't really break down along very clear partisan or ideological lines.

March 8, 2005 | Permalink


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Matt, you neglect to mention one important way the situation in Lebanon could mattter for our national interest--namely, Israel. What happens to Hezbullah (Hizbollah? whichever you prefer), and if they're made to disarm, or at least become less militant in favor of entering the political arena, could matter a great deal for Middle East peace, and of course, us as well.

Posted by: Ryan | Mar 8, 2005 11:32:17 AM

First, is it likely that, whatever we do, Mubarak's regime will move significantly closer to becoming democratic? After all, his chief opponent is still in jail.
Second, how do we know that pushing Murbarak wouldn't result in turmoil and instability inimical to the interests of the Egyptian people? Or even the emergence of a regime much more repressive than Mubarak's?
Third, is there nothing to be said for respecting the sovereignty of other nations by leaving their domestic affairs up to them? What business is it of ours whether Mubarak stays in power?
Fourth, if pushing the Egyptian regime in a democratic direction did significantly reduce the chances of obtaining a settlement of the Israeli-Palesinian dispute, wouldn't it be unwise to fail to put first things first? Everyone seems to agree that America's leaning unfairly in favor of Israel is the grievance that best serves Islamist interests. If a left-alone Mubarak can better facilitate a peace agreement than a leaned-on Mubarak, isn't against our considered interests to lean on him?

Posted by: Kerryier | Mar 8, 2005 11:39:24 AM

Fifth, as the Washington Post observes this morning, Bush is putting lots of pressure on Syria to get it out of Lebanon, but leaving Egypt pretty much alone. That is, he is in fact following the policy MY speculates Kerry would have followed. Maybe the Post is wrong, maybe Bush is a good democrat everywhere, even in Egypt. Or maybe our interest in a stable albeit nasty and brutal regime in Egypt is so manifest that any administration is likely put that reality ahead of ideals which after all our not ours to dispense by forceful or rambunctious means in other sovereign jurisdictions.

Posted by: Kerryier | Mar 8, 2005 11:47:48 AM

What I find to be most interesting is the way that everyone in the US media seems to be taking pro-Bush spin on the "wave of freedom" in the Middle East at face value.

Check out the top article on the BBC's website right now:
" Huge Beirut protest backs Syria"

And compare that with the current CNN headline:
"Bush: Freedom will prevail in Lebanon"

Now, obviously, I hope that Bush is correct, and I'm glad that he's (finally) sticking his neck out for the cause of democracy promotion, rather than merely talking about it in front of American audiences for domestic political gain. But the reality of the situation is that Hezbollah almost certainly still has more political power in Lebanon right now than the pro-Western leaders. And we're still a hell of a long way away from achieving political gains that even remotely recoup the loss of life and treasure in the Iraq War.

Posted by: Violet | Mar 8, 2005 11:48:17 AM

Damn. Matt beat me to it.

Posted by: Violet | Mar 8, 2005 11:50:48 AM

First, is it likely that, whatever we do, Mubarak's regime will move significantly closer to becoming democratic? After all, his chief opponent is still in jail.

The most important changes in Egypt and Lebanon aren't the tentative steps toward democratic reform but the fact that repression is becoming less thinkable and the people are becoming unafraid. If violent supression of protests is off the table (as it seems to be)--why has that happened, and what are the implications?

I'd argue that it has happened because Bush's pro-democracy positions have made it inconceivable that Egypt's U.S. aid would continue after a violent crackdown. The Bush administration would HAVE to take drastic action if Mubarak did that. And the implications? If peaceful protesters feel they can safely take to the streets of Cairo, what changes will not be possible?

Posted by: mw | Mar 8, 2005 11:51:20 AM

I think the point that Matthew crucially misses here is that the democratic advancements in the Middle East are not unrelated to each other. Promoting democracy in Lebanon ALSO PROMOTES democracy in Egypt, just as promoting democracy in Iraq has promoted democracy in Lebanon. This is quite different than, say, providing clean drinking water to Liberia, which has no effect on democracy in Egypt.

It's like Matthew would have been saying in 1989 that we shouldn't be too interested in promoting democracy in Hungary, because Hungary wasn't as important to United States interests as, say, East Germany. But obviously, that would have been the wrong way to look at it - democracy in Hungary affected democracy in East Germany and throughout the rest of the region.

Matthew is looking at the current Middle East situation in a much too atomized manner. He should be seeing the interrelationships between the democratic movements in the Middle East, but isn't (I suspect) because that might lead him to credit Bush more than he already has. Think more broadly, Matthew.

Posted by: Al | Mar 8, 2005 12:00:53 PM

"a world of stable, prosperous, liberal capitalist democracies" I note that of the five attributes described here, democracy is only one. What about unstable, poor, illiberal, non-capitalist democracies? You know, the kind that are most likely to happen? After all, most of the regimes likely to be replaced by democracies are in the third world and ¿how would you describe the democratic regimes in the third world? I sure wouldn't use the words stable and prosperous. Democracy is perfecty compatible with poverty and unstability and there is no evidence that being democratic will inevitably lead to prosperity.

Posted by: Carlos | Mar 8, 2005 12:07:13 PM

mw- I hope you're right. And that possibility is precisely why the craven unwillingness of past American leaders of either party to stand up for democracy in the Middle East was badly misguided, in my opinion.

But few victims of Mubarak's brutal crackdowns in the past have been peaceful pro-American demonstrators. His primary target has been the Islamic Brotherhood. There is a history in the Islamic world, from Iran to Algeria, of peaceful pro-democracy movements being co-opted by violent religious extremists.

If that happens again, Mubarak will be forced to crack down, and Bush will be forced to support him.

Ultimately, I think US leaders need to be on the right side of history, stand up for our democratic ideals, and quit coddling pro-American despots. But we must recognize that within the context of our current struggle against terror organizations, we're playing a very dangerous game. A wave of unrest and anti-government demonstrations across the Middle East would probably more closely resemble the events in Teheran in 1979 than the events in Berlin in 1989. Things may get worse before they get better, and it's far too early to declare George W. Bush a visionary genius.

Posted by: Violet | Mar 8, 2005 12:16:58 PM

In my experience, the disagreements that exist about the most important forward-looking questions in Middle East policy -- about Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia -- don't really break down along very clear partisan or ideological lines.

Unless, of course, one deliberately makes them into partisan footballs. Kerryier is sadly typical of too many regular commenters here in supposing that the liberty or subjugation of a given country is pretty much of no importance. To admit otherwise is to buy into the Bushian view that tyrannies always need external scapegoats and that failed states are breeding grounds of terrorism. Can't have that now, can we?

Carlos joins the chorus of pessimism with still more rhetorical questions and dubious assertions.

What about unstable, poor, illiberal, non-capitalist democracies?

Other than Russia, name one.

You know, the kind that are most likely to happen?

Really? And how many such do you count among the remnants of the old Soviet Empire? The evidence strongly suggests that such "authoritarian democracies" are anything but the rule.

How would you describe the democratic regimes in the third world?

Name one - if you can - and I'll tell you.

There is no evidence that being democratic will inevitably lead to prosperity.

Yeah, it's probably just a coincidence. Jeebus!

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Mar 8, 2005 12:37:41 PM

OK. I know this wasn't addressed to me, but...

What about unstable, poor, illiberal, non-capitalist democracies?

Other than Russia, name one.

Several other former Soviet republics fit the bill, including Moldova, Armenia, and Azerbaijan (and until very recently, Ukraine.) This doesn't count Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, or Belarus, which don't even pretend to be democracies.

And this description applies to many other nations. Let's see... Venezuela springs immediately to mind. Much of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa (Bangladesh, Ghana, Zambia, Kenya, Nigeria). And if we drop "non-capitalist" from the description, we can add Colombia, Paraguay, Bolivia, Malaysia... etc. etc.

Basically, we're talking about roughly half the countries in the world.

Posted by: Violet | Mar 8, 2005 2:21:47 PM

Matthew is looking at the current Middle East situation in a much too atomized manner. He should be seeing the interrelationships between the democratic movements in the Middle East, but isn't (I suspect) because that might lead him to credit Bush more than he already has. Think more broadly, Matthew.

Or maybe he doesn't see the inter-relationship because there isn't one. Maybe the inter-relationship is a phantom that you share with the other neocon crack-smokers.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Mar 8, 2005 3:16:29 PM

How, exactly, is it to America's advantage that France is a democracy rather than being ruled by, say, De Gaulle's grandson?

Or if a country of 100,000 people who hate America is a democracy, rather than being ruled by one America-hating tyrant?

"That word ... I don't think it means what you think it means."

Posted by: Anderson | Mar 8, 2005 3:24:41 PM

"our national interest--namely, Israel"

Oh, I give up! No amount of pointing out the fallacy in this seems to do any good. Go ahead, do whatever you want to! Conflate "our national interest" and "Israel" if you insist you must . . .

Posted by: rea | Mar 8, 2005 5:42:02 PM

Violet - What's coming in the Middle East won't resemble 1979 because ordinary Middle Easterners have the 25 years of mullahcracy before them as an object lesson. They also have 1989 as a counterexample. I guess I have a higher opinion of the native intelligence and perception of rational self-interest of Middle Easterners than you do.

There are Ukraine-esque (pick the color of your choice) revolutions in various states of genesis in Moldova, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. There are even stirrings in Uzbekistan and Khazakhstan. Indeed, the nations you mention in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are all more free now than they were a few years ago, though none is, to be sure, any paragon by Western standards.

It is my sense that the places which, today, may technically fit the "illiberal democracy" template are like those short-lived isotopes created in atom smashers. They exist for a brief time on the way to becoming something else entirely. The nations you name are, at this point in time, illiberal in varying degrees, but are not stable in their illiberalism. Indeed, many were, until the recent passing of various strongmen - outright dictatorships. The direction appears to be toward more genuine liberty, not less. Malaysia is in this trend. This is even true of the countries, such as Nigeria, where a defacto civil war is going on. The savagely illiberal Muslim North is a human rights wasteland for the moment, but the much more liberal South is more free now than it was a decade ago. Ditto Colombia. Russia, which seems to be marking time, is also not stable in its current incarnation and will likely morph into something less moribund once Putin wears out his welcome - say 2010 or so.

Venezuela certainly shows that backsliding is possible. It has yet to demonstrate that backsliding has staying power. I strongly suspect it won't. Bolivia, for example, seems to be putting up a fight against going in the same direction.

Anderson - I suppose because De Gaulle's grandson would be trying to get the old empire back - Algeria excepted, of course.

The problem with your other question is that when the America-hating dictator gets overthrown, we usually find out that his citizens don't hate America, they just pretended to on TV.

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Mar 8, 2005 6:01:20 PM


Now that you have taken the time to discuss the issue in detail, rather than making an argument that appears on its surface to indicate that Russia is the only illiberal democracy in the world, I don't completely disagree with you (though I take exception to your opinion that most of the former Soviet republics are moving in the right direction, and your insinuation that my motivations are elitist.) But it is precisely this type of effort to fit complex issues into simple talking points that always leads me to distrust conservative foreign policy pundits.

I don't question the native intelligence of folks in the Middle East, but I strongly question whether their concept of "rational self-interest" is the same as mine. Religious faith can be a beautiful thing, but it is rarely a rational phenomenon. The same can be said for nationalism. And these are powerful weapons in the hands of demagogues in any country, not excluding our own.

Illiberal democracies are indeed often transition states between tyranny and freedom (as in South Korea and Taiwan) or the reverse (as in Zimbabwe and Belarus). And I would agree that the trends are positive right now in much of the 3rd world.

But it's also true that Syria and Israel intervened in Lebanon AFTER the country disintegrated into chaos and civil war, and I see little evidence that country won't backslide without some sort of stabilizing power. I see little evidence that the people power movement in Beirut can muster more support than Hezbollah... and even if they can, they're badly outgunned by Hezbollah. I see little reason not to believe that the mullahs won't seize power in Egypt or (especially) Saudi Arabia, given a power vacuum.

All that said, I do think the right thing for Bush to do is to use the bully pulpit to support the spread of democracy. If the US doesn't lead, who will? But we must concede that this is a dangerous tactic when we aren't in a position to provide military support to pro-democracy agitators, as we have learned over and over again in Budapest, Prague, Tianamen Square, and the Kurdish and Shiite areas of Iraq. We're encouraging people to risk their lives. We owe it to them not to just cheerlead from the sidelines. Egypt may need our aid too desperately to try anything stupid, but the same cannot be said for Syria or Iran. We need to be willing to negotiate for the sort of half-measures and incremental steps that keep these trends moving in the right direction, while reducing the risk of a 1979 deja vu all over again.

Simply demanding that Syria withdraw immediately from Lebanon and putting all our faith in the universal appeal of western-style democracy, without at least laying the groundwork for some sort of interim UN peacekeeping force, could prove catastrophic.

Don't expect Hezbollah to peacefully submit to the democratic spirit. The Iraqi Baathists certainly didn't.

I hope I'm wrong... but I'm far from convinced.

Posted by: Violet | Mar 8, 2005 8:03:59 PM

violet - I see now we agree more than disagree. On the matter of the ex-Soviet republics, you might want to take a look at recent Instapundit links about Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and others, then follow anywhere that looks interesting from there. There are so many, it'd take forever to repot them all here. I think you'll find Central Asia, while no paradise, is a modestly pleasant surprise these days and the basis for some non-trivial optimism.

Agree 100% that we can't just cheerlead. The betrayal of the South Vietnamese in 1975 and of the Kurds and Shi'a in 1991 are wretched blots on America's escutcheon. Never again!

In Lebanon, we need to insist on total Syrian withdrawal. At the same time, we should make clear to the Christians that we will not support irredentist claims to a permanent "50% solution" regardless of population, but we will back any solution that adequately preserves their liberties as a minority.

We can support political participation by Hezbollah, but only on the condition that they disarm first. We should make it clear that refusal to do so requires them to follow their Syrian masters out of Lebanon. This is likely to be as tough a sticking point in Lebanon as it has been in Ireland if we let it drag. We should, therefore, set a short deadline - insist that one or the other be done prior to the May elections. I don't think even the Bush administration will be this bold, but they ought to be - it's the right thing to do.

UN peacekeepers in place to secure peaceful elections would be desirable as long as the troops come from countries with credible military traditions - preferably ones whose armies have actually fought in living memory. No more Srbrenicas. French and Germans preferred, but not absolutely required.

Syrian hardliners may well imagine they can try something ugly to maintain their imperium. I would favor making it clear, through backchannels, that, while we lack the current capacity to occupy Syria on the ground, we will meet use of force in Lebanon by eliminating Syria's military and internal security capabilities beyond the small arms level through massive air assault, then arm any anti-Ba'ath Syrians who step up and let nature take its course. To be brutally frank, we can afford for Syria to be a mess for awhile if it comes to that. It'd make the Iraq project easier, and probably draw in the Hezbolloids from Lebanon, making that project easier as well.

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Mar 10, 2005 11:41:20 AM

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