February 03, 2005

A Word On Democracy Promotion

Oy. So as expected, I've got a lot more to do in this new job—and I'm trying to work on on a few longer pieces right now—so blogging may tail off here and there intermittently, at least for the next few days.

But I do want to add something real quick onto this MoJo post about the rhetoric of democracy-promotion. I was really quite horrified to hear Bush mention Morocco and Jordan and Bahrain as constituting an "arc" of "hopeful reform". Here's why.

One of the things states have become very good at learning how to do in the last decade or so is embracing and channeling dissent into relatively harmless outlets. Marxists sometimes like to talk about how democracy is the most insidious form of political control by elites, precisely because those controlled believe they're actually free. Maybe this is hyperbole, but it's certainly true for many Middle Eastern countries. It's very easy to enact a wide range of reforms—expanding service NGOs, allowing free elections for the lower house, privatizing parts of the economy—that make people feel like they're invested in a civil society, but don't actually produce real change. In a sense, it siphons off frustration while keeping the autocratic system in place. So long as Arab despots allow free elections but continue to ban political parties, they can easily direct the opposition's energy off into fruitless ends. Democracy actually becomes less of a possibility.

Now insofar as frustration over the lack of freedom in the Middle East is the real root cause of terrorism, maybe this business of deluding people into thinking they're getting real reform will be good from a national security standpoint. But eventually people catch on and the frustration gets worse and the U.S. gets blamed for supporting rather hollow freedoms under the guise of "reform". And in the future, when American presidents call for reform, they have less and less credibility.

Anyway, the larger point, I think, is that calls for freedom and liberty are not only imprecise, but dangerously imprecise. They allow Arab regimes to pretend to reform things by, say, holding elections or expanding well-controlled areas of civil society. These semi-reforms, after all, really are expanding liberty and freedom, so in a sense the regimes in question are following Bush's prescription to the letter. Republicans can take credit and everyone's happy. But in the meantime, democracy stalls, and the "roots of Muslim rage" just get swept under the carpet rather than solved. If Bush is serious about reform, he has to stop using the word "reform" and really pinpoint what he means. Say "political parties must be established." Or "controls on the press must be loosened." Or "independent judicial branches must be established." If that's too radical, then please, shut up. Because promoting cosmetic reform might well be worse than doing nothing at all.
-- Brad Plumer 4:44 PM || ||