In the last three decades, there has been little doubt in my mind that democratic institutions would soon replace or subsume the world’s last remaining monarchies, including those in the Middle East.
Monarchs could rule effectively when the world moved at a snail’s pace, but with the accelerated pace of change in the global political economy, the monarchical form of government simply can’t keep up. In my 1978 book, The Way the World Works, I wrote:
“The electorate, being wiser than any individual in the society, is society’s most precious resource. It is the job of the politician to try to divine what it is the electorate wants.
“Politicians have the most important and difficult task in all of society, for they are the only channel through which the electorate can realize its self-interest and in so doing preserve itself and progress.
“If politicians repeatedly fail to discern the interests of the electorate, winning office only because their political competitors have even less discernment, the society will ultimately resort to either war or revolution to bring about a correction.”
Like all Americans, President Bush believes in “democracy” because it has worked so well for the United States. But also like most Americans, he has never thought much about “democracy” other than that it means popular elections of political leaders as opposed to inherited political power.
Bush and his team are now taking the elections in Iraq and signs of democratic political change elsewhere in the Mideast as justification for his taking the United States to war, although no mention of spreading the gospel of democracy was mentioned at the time.
Where is this leading? Mr. Bush’s pro-war supporters in Congress and the news media are already trumpeting a prediction that he will go down in history for forcing change upon those elites who have long resisted freedom and democracy for their people.
Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times sees him perhaps as a new Napoleon, a populist who rose out of the common clay to change the world in many positive ways, even while using force of arms as the battering ram for change.
On the other hand, there is Pat Buchanan, the conservative political commentator who worked for presidents Nixon and Reagan during the Cold War and twice ran for president.
In a recent column, Buchanan notes that Bush says “democracy and freedom” are on the march.
But instead, it may be that revolution is on the march. If Bush turns out to be right, he “will be viewed by history as a Reaganite visionary who, seeing deeper into the Islamic soul than critics, understood that an invasion of Iraq would unleash the liberating force of freedom, not the demonic force of Islamic revolution.”
An opponent of the war with Iraq, Buchanan clearly expects that when the dust settles a bit, the Middle East will not look the way President Bush expected it to.
It is already clear that Iraq may form a government that will not only be much less secular than the regime Bush overturned, but also may invite the United States to pull stakes and leave completely.
Even with the interim government practically installed by the United States, democratic principles of free press and free speech were shelved, with al-Jazeera itself barred from reporting while news outlets supportive of the Allawi regime were favored.
The events in Lebanon are even less likely to satisfy the Bush administration, stunned into silence by Hezbollah’s show of political power that surprised all American observers.
Bush seemed to believe the Lebanese people would dance in the streets singing his praises for demanding an end to the Syrian presence. And 70,000 did.
But the following day, 500,000 Lebanese showed up at the same square to denounce America. They represented the forces that originally invited Syria’s military presence to end the military clashes between Maronite Christians and Palestinians in Southern Lebanon.
It was a conflict that could not be avoided by Lebanon’s consociational democracy which allocates power by percentages to the Christians, Sunnis, Shia, and Druze. They clearly wish Syria to play a role until the elections next month.
The turnabout was so quick that it did not leave President Bush time to change his celebration of the first Beirut demonstration, and in a speech the following day, he behaved as if the outpouring of 500,000 Lebanese was another sure sign of democracy on the march.
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, could make the obvious point that a majority clearly favors Syria’s presence, and if that isn’t democratic, what is?
What happens next? The U.S., now backed by a UN resolution, demands Syria retreat behind its borders before the spring elections in Lebanon, but UN officials prefer to hold the elections before the Syrian withdrawal.
It’s not at all clear how this will play out. Buchanan observes that “almost every revolution demands the expulsion of foreign troops. The Syrian army may leave Lebanon, but this presages a demand that the U.S. Army get out of Iraq and the Israelis get off the Golan Heights and out of the West Bank.”
To appreciate the ironies of the moment, we can recollect that the outlines of President Bush’s call for a worldwide democratic crusade were hatched a dozen years ago by the intellectuals around him
These were the young men chosen by President Nixon for his foreign policy team: Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Cheney, the elder George Bush, and the “neocons,” who were nominally Democrats: Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and James Woolsey.
In his 1992 book, Seize the Moment, Nixon wrote that “the death of Soviet communism and the disintegration of the Soviet empire in 1991 revolutionized the global landscape. I believe that it is imperative that the U.S. seize this moment to secure peace and advance freedom around the world.”
In that sense, U.S. foreign policy is still the design of an American president who died soon after writing his book. As an admirer of Nixon’s worldview, I’ve often believed that he would not have followed the course plotted by the neocons in subsequent years, which has left us with such a mess today.
Earlier in the same book, in fact, Nixon had this to day about a march of democracy at the end of a gun, what I call “gunboat democracy,” after neocon hero Teddy Roosevelt’s “gunboat diplomacy”:
“Those who call for a global democratic crusade ignore the limits of our power. Recognizing these limits does not mean that we should shrug off forces struggling to advance democracy or that we should give a green light to dictators poised to strike against fragile democratic regimes.
“But we do not have sufficient power to remake the world in our image. Even in the West, democratic government has existed for only two hundred years.
“Nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America cannot develop overnight the traditions, cultures, and institutions needed to make democracy work.
“What works for us may not work for others. In these regions, democratic government does not necessarily mean good government.
“It could lead to majority repression of minorities and to mob rule that would make authoritarian rule enviable by comparison.”
Nixon’s followers obviously ignored the old man’s counsel when they devised their Project for a New American Century in 1994, which was an explicit design for a New World Order based on the exercise of America’s economic and military might.
But they were fully in accord with his view that the sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1991 after the Gulf War should not be lifted until Saddam was gone from power, no matter how much he cooperated with the United Nations. Nixon clearly believed Saddam would be overthrown by his own people in a year or two.
When he wasn’t, and the murderous sanctions wound up causing the deaths of at least 500,000 Iraqi civilians, it was Osama bid Laden and al-Qaeda who came into the picture on 9/11.
Indeed, Eric Margolis, an astute columnist for the Toronto Sun, recently wrote that bin Laden, not Bush, is “the man most responsible for pushing the Arab world toward political change.”
“For over a decade, bin Laden has agitated for the overthrow of the corrupt, despotic Arab regimes supported by the U.S., and their replacement by a traditional Islamic democratic consensus.
“As bin Laden’s anti-American insurgency gathers strength and resonates among the restive Arab masses, the Bush administration has urged the frightened kings and generals running Washington’s client Arab regimes to make a show of democratic reforms to head off popular uprisings.”
We will have to patiently wait and watch to see how it all comes out. History seems to be moving faster than ever, but still it happens one day at a time.