March 08, 2005

Democracy, Democrats, Etc.

Matt Yglesias has a marvelous TAP column on democratization, though it seems like a few nitpicks are in order. First, he argues that the Iraq war had nothing to do with Palestinian elections:
I expect that at this point conservative readers are saying, “Maybe so, but what about the Iraq War? Wasn't it the necessary precursor to these positive developments?” Well, no. Bush first called for an elected leadership of the Palestinian Authority in 2002. We invaded Iraq in 2003. The election was not held until 2005. The difference-maker, obviously, was not the election but the death of Yasir Arafat, something that can in no way be attributed to the invasion of Iraq.
Hm, well true. But Saddam Hussein was a fairly big supporter of Palestinian terrorism, and it's far from certain that a "nice" Palestinian government could have popped up under Saddam's meddlesome presence. But I don't know. My argument's always been this: look, a lot of very promising democratic developments in the Middle East have popped up since we invaded Iraq. But a lot of equally promising developments popped up before the Iraq war, and even before 9/11, so it's hard to prove causation. On the other hand, I might need to revise that view. Many of those big developments pre-2003 also happened after a cataclysmic incident, namely, the Gulf War. (See, for example, the creation of the shura council in Saudi Arabia in 1992, which came about after widespread Nadji discontent over the presence of American troops in the holy land.) So big earth-shaking events like the war in Iraq do create ripples and seismic waves, and it's hard to untangle causal threads here.

Anyway, that's sort of a tedious point. No one likes to say "Leave this question for historians." The second (less nitpicky) point is about this passage, which claims that foreign policy success for Bush will be good for the Democrats:
All of which brings us to the second reason that liberals should be dissonance-free. To put things in the crassest partisan terms: Stunning foreign-policy success breeds domestic failure. Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior may have earned themselves a place in the history books for successfully managing the end of the Cold War. But in the realm of partisan politics, all they did was cost the Republican Party its best issue: anti-communism. The lack of the red menace took the issue off the table and enabled the Democrats to return to power on the strength of the slogan, "It's the economy, stupid."

Liberals still ought to address our decades-old inability to win national-security debates. But if the next three years go well enough, that may become unnecessary.
Okay, but here's the thing. Maybe Bush's democracy agenda will be so successful that foreign policy if off the table in 2008 or 2012. And Democrats can then swoop in with their unbeatable economic/cultural message. Fine. But the price of all that is that Republicans further enhance their long-standing image as the reliable foreign policy party. The fall of the Soviet Union did a good deal of enhancing in 1989; as did the liberation of Kuwait in 1991; as did, I think, some of Nixon's successes. These are all somewhat contingent events (i.e. Democrats could have accomplished similar things), but they helped build the Republican mystique. And eventually, foreign policy will come back to the fore in elections. It always has and it always will. But if Republicans and only Republicans can take credit for successes past (i.e. Bush's foreign policy, assuming it succeeds), they'll be instant winners at the polls once more. That's not to say that we shouldn't cheer Bush on—like Noam Scheiber, I think Democrats ought to co-opt the democratization agenda, mainly because it's my preferred agenda. But let's not pretend the Republicans can't reap a good deal of long-term partisan gain from success.
-- Brad Plumer 4:08 PM || ||