To understand how we got to the point that spending hundreds of millions of dollars to support a government run by people who have been at war with us for almost a century is a policy that most foreign policy experts endorse, it helps to take a brief trip back in time.
In the last century, our big three wars, the two we fought and the one we didn’t, were against enemies who were seen as being distinguished by a lack of democracy, with the Kaiser, the Fuhrer and the Commissar embodying the antithesis of the American system.
The Democratic Party, which stood at the helm during both hot wars, was able to link its brand to the wars by defining them as struggles for democracy. The process of de-nationalizing war from a conflict between nations and ethnic groups was only partly realized in WW1, where invective against the “Huns” still simmered, but was largely achieved in WW2; with some exceptions made for Japan.
This idealization of war made post-war reconstruction and alliance easier. National and ethnic grudges were set aside and replaced by ideological platforms. If the trouble was a lack of democracy, then all we needed to do was defeat the tyrant’s armies, inject democracy and stand back. Focusing on democracy made it possible to rebuild Germany and Japan as quasi-pacifist entities expressing their grievances toward the Allies from the pacifistic stance of the moral high ground, rather than through military rearmament and revenge.
The United States had traded Hitler for Gunter Grass and while both hated the United States, Gunter Grass would write nasty essays about it, instead of declaring war on it.
And democracy made it easier to turn liberals against the Soviet Union, which had tossed aside every pretense of being a bottom-up system for what was clearly a top-down tyranny. The liberals who had believed in a war for democracy in Europe had difficulty tossing it aside after the war was over. And that emphasis on democracy helped make a national defense coalition between conservatives and liberals possible. Both might have fundamental disagreements, but they agreed that democracy was better than tyranny. And if that was true, then America was better than the USSR.
This strategy was effective enough against existing totalitarian systems. It however had a major weakness. It could not account for keeping a totalitarian ideology from taking power through the ballot box.
The assumption that because the Nazis and the Communists rejected open elections that they could not win open elections was wrong. Democracy of that kind is populism and totalitarian movements can be quite popular. The Nazis did fairly well in the 1932 elections and the radical left gobbled up much of the Russian First Duma. The modern Russian Communist Party is the second largest party in the Duma today.
Democratic elections do not necessarily lead to democratic outcomes, but the linkage of democracy to progress made that hard to see. The assumption that democracy is progressive and leads to more progress had been adopted even by many conservatives. That fixed notion of history led to trouble in Latin America and Asia. And it led to total disaster in the Arab Spring.
Cold War America knew better than to endorse universal democracy. Open elections everywhere would have given the Soviet Union more allies than the United States. The left attacked Eisenhower and Kennedy as hypocrites, but both men were correct in understanding that there was no virtue in overthrowing an authoritarian government only to replace it with an even more authoritarian government; whether through violence or the ballot box.
As time went on, Americans were assailed with two interrelated arguments. The left warned that the denial of democracy was fueling Third World rage against the United States. By supporting tyrants, we were conducting an occupation by proxy. And on the right we heard that tyranny was warping Third World societies into malignant forms. The left’s version of the argument directed more blame at America, but both versions of the argument treated democracy as a cure for hostility.
September 11 appeared to confirm one or both of the arguments as policymakers and pundits found themselves confronted with an unexpected wave of hostility from countries that they had not spent much time thinking about.
The fundamental error that they made was in framing a new war with Islamism in terms of the ideas that had been applied to the Third World when its countries were pawns in the Cold War. The issue was no longer whether a Muslim country would align with the United States or the USSR, but whether it would express the historical destiny embedded in its religion.
The first great failure to understand this came in Iran. The Carter Administration aided what it thought was a historical revival that might restrain Communism, without realizing the genie being let out of the bottle. The entire course of the Arab Spring could have been foreseen 31 years earlier. And while, during the Cold War, there might have been some excuse for choosing Islamists over Communists, during the Arab Spring that same choice no longer applied.
The argument that democracy had made the Muslim world dysfunctional was always chancy. The best counterargument to it was that second and third-generation Muslims in Europe were often more radical than their immigrant parents. If democracy were a cure for Islamism, it was working very poorly in London, Oslo and Paris.
The assumption of the argument was that the tyranny that a people were living under was unnatural while the outcome of a democratic election would be natural. And yet, if a people have been warped for a thousand years by not living under a democracy, how could they be expected to choose a form of government that would not be warped? Was there any reason to expect that such efforts at democracy would not lead to tyranny?
The dangerous question, closed off by generations of faith in democracy, was whether a country’s bad behavior was the fault of its government or its people. In a truly absolute tyranny, such as North Korea, where the people have absolutely no room to deviate from dogma and are forced to worship the state, it may be reasonable to assume that the state does not truly represent the people. Comparing South Korea to North Korea gives us ample reason to believe that the effect of freeing North Korea would lead to an outcome more like East Germany and less like Egypt.
But few tyrannies are truly absolute. The dictatorship where a Kim Jong Il or a Gaddafi operate in their own version of reality while imposing their insane whims on the rest of the population are not as typical as most people think.
The average dictatorship is not all that fundamentally different from what a democracy would be like in the same place. Some, like Putin’s Russia, blur the lines. Even when they don’t go to the trouble of holding elections, they do rely on public consensus. The dictatorship where 99 percent of the people hate the dictator is a very rare thing. Mubarak, for example, had an extensive base of loyalists, and it would not be impossible to rule out their return to power, considering that Ahmed Shafik won 48.3% of the vote in the Egyptian presidential election, losing to Morsi by barely 120,000 votes.
The Arab Spring has taught us to question the idea that democracy is an absolute good. Initially the outcome of the Palestinian Arab elections that rewarded Hamas was thought not to apply to the wider region. That assumption proved to be wrong. We now know that Hamas’ victory foreshadowed the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory. And we know that Islamists have the inside track in elections because they represent a familiar ideology that has not been discredited in the minds of a majority of Muslims.
We can no longer afford to be bound by a Cold War argument against Communism that has outlived its usefulness, especially once liberals turned left and defected from a national security consensus. Universal democracy has proven to be about as universal a panacea as international law or the United Nations. And relying on it undermines our ability to look after our own interests and defend ourselves.
Classifying ideologies as democratic or undemocratic has blinded us to their content and their appeal. And it gives these ideologies an easy way to discredit our only line of attack against them. Too many Republicans were flailing after the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egypt; unable to articulate a reason why the United States should not support a democratically elected government. And yet the reasons are obvious, once we ignore the election as largely irrelevant to the nature of the Brotherhood and to the threat it poses to our interests.
Democracy only represents a choice. It does not obligate us to honor the choice of another people, especially if that choice is elementally hostile to us.
What our policymakers have forgotten is that the only democratic choices that they are obligated to honor are those made by their voters. And it is the safety, security and future of those voters that they are obligated to safeguard.
Democracy was once viewed, rightly or wrongly, as a form of American Exceptionalism. But reducing that exceptionalism to open elections misses the point. It isn’t open elections that make Americans special; it’s Americans who make open elections special. Instead of looking to systems, we should look to values. Instead of looking to governments, we should look to peoples.
The belief that we are meant to export democracy is a Cold War relic and the assumption that exporting democracy also exports our values is clearly wrong. It isn’t democracy that makes free people; it’s individual responsibility. Democracy with individual responsibility makes for a free nation. Democracy without individual responsibility is only another name for tyranny.
We have spent too much time looking at systems, when we should have been looking at values. We have wrongly assumed that all religions and all peoples share the same basic values that democracy can unleash for the betterment of all. That has clearly been proven to be wrong. If we had looked instead at a poll which showed that 4 out of 5 Egyptians believe that adulterers should be stoned and thieves should have their hands cut off, we would have known how this democracy experiment was going to end and how much damage it would do to our national interests.
It’s time to stop putting our faith in Democracy. Democracy for all is not the answer. Responsibility for all is. Our responsibility is not to agnostically empower other people to make the choices that will destroy our way of life, but to make those choices that will keep our way of life alive.