Exporting ‘Democracy’ – Importing Trouble

Editor’s note: The following is the text of a speech delivered to the Yale Political Union on April 13. On this occasion, the Union debated the topic: “Resolved: America should not use force to export democracy.”

I have to say, it’s rather odd to be debating this point at such a late date. With Iraq falling to pieces in front of our eyes, with the death squads of the American-installed Shi’ite regime roaming the streets of Baghdad kidnapping and slaughtering their enemies, with the corrupt kleptocracy we helped install in Kurdistan imprisoning writers for criticizing the authorities – in the face of all this evidence, is the question even debatable?

Just as the claims of phrenology are no longer taken seriously by scientists or the thinking public, so the claims of the democracy-exporters ought to be thrown in the trash bin, along with the bones of “Piltdown Man.” Why debate a theory, when the evidence of its complete failure is all around us?

“Democracy” is what the neoconservative ideologues who lied us into war talk about when they want to divert attention away from their real motives. The only question now is: what were their real motives? But we’ll get to that later. Meanwhile, let us go back in a time machine and pretend, for a moment, that the idea of exporting democracy by force has not already been totally discredited. Let us take it seriously, if only for the sake of argument, and examine just why it never made sense to begin with.

The proposition breaks down into basically two issues:

(1) Is it possible? And (2) is it desirable?

I will focus, here, on the first question, because I assume I am not speaking to a libertarian audience. If I were speaking to such an audience, I would assume the absolute undesirability of democracy as an axiom, since libertarians, of course – believing as they do in a system of absolute private property rights and individual liberty – oppose democracy in all its forms. This axiom, however, is not shared by most of you, and I shall spare you a long lecture on the utter incompatibility of liberty and democracy, which, aside from its necessary length, would not be half as interesting as a discussion of how and why the neocons’ democracy project failed, and had to fail.

It is more interesting, at least to me, because it demonstrates important philosophical differences between the neoconservatives and an earlier generation of Old Right conservatives who are appalled at the hubris of our foreign policy. The shared perspective of libertarians and conservatives on how societies work – or don’t work – suggests the impossibility of treating political culture like a suit of clothing that can be worn by anyone – and even forcibly imposed – rather than a mindset that has to be, in large part, inherited.

The neoconservative foreign policy project – succinctly summed up by the president as the goal of “ending tyranny in our world” – is closer, in theory and in practice, to the spirit of Marxism than to anything vaguely resembling conservatism, or, indeed, any ideology born on American soil. That is entirely appropriate, of course, since the leftist roots of neoconservatism are well known, and it is clear that, as much as they talk about patriotism and “pro-Americanism,” their real roots spring from a bulb planted not by Jefferson, but by Trotsky.

Libertarians and Old Right conservatives are also brought together by a common analysis of the potential economic consequences of a system of “benevolent global hegemony,” as Bill Kristol characterizes the democratist ideal. The policy of exporting “democracy” by force overestimates the available resources we can devote to what is, by definition, a Sisyphean task. Empires are a losing proposition: as the now-forgotten Old Right author and polemicist Garet Garrett once pointed out, the American Empire represents a peculiar and historically unique form of imperialism, one in which “everything goes out, and nothing comes in.” Unlike most empires of the past, which sought to extract wealth in the form of tribute from subject provinces, we pour money and resources into our conquests, a project that goes under the general rubric of “nation-building.” And all of this, you can be sure, costs a pretty penny: playing God doesn’t come cheap.

The cost of George W. Bush’s global democratization project – $300 billion so far, and slated to surpass the $1 trillion mark before it’s over – is so out of proportion to its possible benefits that it is hard to see how it could be justified on any terms. One is hard pressed to imagine how anyone who calls himself or herself a conservative could possibly endorse it. And yet this hardly begins to exhaust the myriad ways in which the neoconservative foreign policy project violates every known precept of conservatism.

The imperial project is the road to bankruptcy, not only financially but also in every other sense. It overestimates the available resources we can reasonably devote to the task, just as it underestimates the danger posed to the maintenance of our own liberal democracy here at home.

The central paradox of the democracy-exportation scheme is that as we ramp up attempts to spread our system to the far corners of the globe, we subvert the foundations of the constitutional order right here on the home front. War, as Randolph Bourne memorably put it, is the health of the state. The growth of state power always and inevitably makes a “great leap forward” as we prepare for the conflict. A state of perpetual war – in a struggle that will take, as the president avers, a full generation – means the exponential growth of government beyond anything we have experienced. We aren’t just talking about “Big Government,” as the conservatives like to term it: we are talking about humongous government. It’s no accident, as the Marxists liked to say, that this supposedly “conservative” regime is claiming the power to read our e-mails and listen in on our phone conversations, and sees the president as having powers equivalent to a king. The absurdity of expanding state power in America while purporting to shrink it in, say, Iraq and Afghanistan, should be obvious – except, of course, to those who today call themselves “conservatives,” and are anything but.

Another obvious point – at least, one that ought to be obvious to self-described “conservatives” – is that the cultural basis of democratic liberalism cannot be created overnight. As the neoconservative defector and former Iraq war cheerleader Francis Fukuyama has pointed out, the neoconservative hostility to government social-engineering projects on American soil somehow got lost in the rush to invade Iraq and transform the Middle East.

A core conservative principle is that culture reigns supreme: all efforts to override long-entrenched customs and mores by government fiat are bound to fail. This is as true in the Middle East as it is in Appalachia, and yet the neocons, who started out as critics of the “Great Society” projects of the 1960s, are now surpassing the Left in the naked ambition of their world-transforming foreign policy prescriptions. Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan want to achieve “benevolent global hegemony” – when we can’t even assert hegemony over our own borders, or New Orleans at flood tide. We must protect the “government” of the Shi’ite theocracy in Baghdad when we can’t even assure our own people that they are reasonably safe from a repeat of 9/11.

I trust you’ll forgive me if I keep going back to Garet Garrett, a now largely unknown writer whose career as a writer spanned nearly the entire arc of American development, and two world wars – from the lighthearted days of the so-called New Era, in the 1920s, through the darkest days of the 1930s, to the first frost of the Cold War years. In 1951, as he surveyed the rise of an American Empire, he wrote a paragraph at the end of one of his last polemics that is so prescient, so on target, that it seems to mock us down through the years:

“How now, thou American, frustrated crusader, do you know where you are?

“Is it security you want? There is no security at the top of the world.

“To thine own self a liberator, to the world an alarming portent, do you know where you are going from here?”

That was written at the very moment the Cold War began to cast its long shadow over the world, and yet, today, it rings truer than ever. It could have been written yesterday. The only difference being that now we know there is no security at the top of the world – indeed, there is much less than in Garrett’s day.

Good old Garrett. An early editor of the New York Times, a prolific novelist, and an editorial writer for the Saturday Evening Post, he saw what was coming, and tried to warn against it: he was defeated by his own obscurity, and by a conservative movement that was already morphing into a militaristic cult, under the leadership of the editorial staff of National Review and the Goldwater Right.

Like Cassandra, his clear-eyed vision of the future was fated to be met with universal skepticism and even disdain. Today, Garrett’s writings – in 1956, fairly representative of conservative thinking – must seem positively subversive to “movement” conservatives, and certainly “anti-American” – the favorite epithet of the Rush Limbaughs, the Anne Coulters, the David Frums of today’s lobotomized conservative movement. Large portions of the movement’s brain – including especially those parts related to memory and self-concept – have been removed, and something else implanted. Here is not the place to analyze just what is going on there; suffice to say that Lew Rockwell of the Mises Institute calls it “red-state fascism,” a characterization that neatly sums up the program and origins of neoconservatism in power.

The irony of a “conservative” regime that offers us Big Government at home and perpetual war abroad has been noted by more than a few. A number of conservative and libertarian writers have made the point that imperialism corrupts our political system, distorts the constitutional balance of power in favor of the imperial presidency, and otherwise intrudes on the constitutional protections that are the core of our system. And yet there is a deeper level of corruption that has set in here, a cultural decadence that is not just a question of personal mores and values, but one that permeates every aspect of American life.

The ancient Greeks rightly thought hubris a great sin, one always swiftly and cruelly punished by the gods, and yet this is the spirit that animates our rulers and energizes our elites. Since these people set the tone for the culture, their conceit and overweening arrogance trickles down, as it were, into popular culture, where it is absorbed and reflected in the cruelty and vulgarity of everyday life. Even the capacity for pleasure becomes coarsened, so that only the most extreme stimulation – shocking violence, outrageous ostentation, an exaggerated self-regard bordering on self-parody – has the power to move us. It may seem a bit of a stretch to attribute this to American foreign policy, and yet Empire is a mindset as well as a political and economic system. It has a certain way of looking at the world, a perspective unique to itself, and this generates a cultural ethos that shapes everything from late night television to the doctrine of preemptive war. The shopkeepers, artisans, and yeoman farmers of a Jeffersonian republic see the world very differently than the world-weary courtiers of an Imperial Court and their degraded and discontented plebeians. The stern republican virtues of patriotism and parsimony have given way to the extravagant corruption of the New Rome, and the public, immersed in their own private corruption, view it all with a cynical tolerance. In the general atmosphere of moral laxity, the seeds of corruption germinate quickly and in such luxuriant abundance that the effect is overwhelming. The old culture is swept away in no time, and the results aren’t pretty to behold.

The cultural consequences of imperialism are all around us, some of them obvious – like the number of disabled vets begging in the streets, so zonked out on drugs and the memory of combat that they cannot care for themselves – and some of them less so. One heretofore unnoticed effect is the immigration crisis, which Congress is now wrestling with. Now, it makes perfect sense that a global empire – especially one committed to “democracy” – should have open borders. Imperial Rome conferred citizenship on its conquered subjects, with all the rights and privileges that entailed, and one wonders how America – which the neocons like to call an “empire of liberty” – can do less. So to those conservatives who are now saying that it’s time to close the borders and crack down on immigration, one has to ask: how will you do it? How will you prevent the subjects of the Empire from aspiring to live in the imperial metropolis? How will you rule them and then turn them back?

Another paradox of Empire is that our best efforts to transform the culture of foreign peoples will result in our own transformation. We can have an Empire, or we can have secure borders: we cannot have both. This is one aspect of the foreign policy debate that most conservatives have not thought through. Do they want a multicultural empire with porous borders, or will they try to preserve the last remnants of their old, relatively homogenous republic? We will see.

There is another sense in which the paradox of American power works against the ambitions of “democratic” imperialism. A military campaign to impose democracy at gunpoint would undermine the very democratic forces we claim to support. By tying these forces to U.S. foreign policy and making them, in effect, elements of a “Democratic International” under Washington’s leadership, we provoke a nationalist response and marginalize the proponents of liberalism.

If we look at the Soviet model – of a Communist International made up of servile national Communist parties in every country, which served as the Russian foreign ministry’s amen corner – we can see that it pretty closely approximates how what George Bush calls his “global democratic revolution” operates. American commissars impose a party line on their local clients, as in the case of Iraq’s prospective prime minister. If the American ambassador nixes his nomination to the post, Jaafari is out. And this, mind you, is being done in the name of exporting “democracy”! It sounds like something the Stalinists might have done in Eastern Europe 60 years ago: instead, it is happening in the American-occupied Middle East.

The tragedy of American foreign policy is that it lures and sucks in many of the most genuine advocates of freedom, who take the ideology of democratic imperialism seriously and at face value. They look to the U.S. government and those on its payroll for real leadership in the fight to free their own societies from the yoke of tyranny and the weight of centuries. The price of their allegiance is to be characterized – rightly, in many cases – as quislings, stand-ins for the Americans, who prop up their front men with money as well as force of arms. In Iraq, for example, nationalist opposition to the occupation is channeled into radical anti-liberal currents, such as the Sadrists. The process is similar to what is occurring on a worldwide scale, as American aggression swells the ranks of terrorist groupings, such as al-Qaeda.

The final paradox of American power, the one that piles irony on top of tragedy, is that it strengthens our enemies, and boomerangs. Speaking of the Palestinian insurgency, the military historian Martin van Creveld generalized the lesson that should have been learned by the Israelis but wasn’t:

“Basically it’s always a question of the relationship of forces. If you are strong, and you are fighting the weak for any period of time, you are going to become weak yourself. If you behave like a coward then you are going to become cowardly – it’s only a question of time. The same happened to the British when they were here … the same happened to the French in Algeria … the same happened to the Americans in Vietnam … the same happened to the Soviets in Afghanistan … the same happened to so many people that I can’t even count them.”

And, as we see, the same thing is happening to the Americans in Iraq, where, he accurately predicted, the occupiers would be run out by jeering “liberated” Iraqis.

How, at this point, anyone can continue to have faith in the Bush Doctrine and its neoconservative version of “liberation theology” is a testament to the blinding power of ideology to sustain an illusion indefinitely, against all evidence and in the face of much suffering and bloodshed. Even the recanters, such as Fukuyama and Andrew Sullivan, refuse to take much responsibility for their advocacy of a futile crusade. The former never mentions the subject of personal responsibility, after having signed one of the earliest letters calling for an invasion. And while the latter admits he feels “shame,” there is no humility accompanying his admission, no acknowledgment that the invasion and occupation are wrong in principle, and that the problems we’ve encountered are not due to imperfect implementation.

The inherent problems of a campaign to export democracy, either at gunpoint or by any other governmental means, are manifold, and yet one that has only recently begun to be discussed is particularly relevant to our present situation. If we look at what U.S. policy has actually wrought, rather than the abstract pronouncements of intent, we can see that “democracy” of any recognizable sort – recognizable, that is, to Americans – has absolutely nothing to do with our foreign policy. In Iraq, we have installed a Shi’ite theocracy that lionizes the late Ayatollah Khomeini and looks to Iran as a model for the region. Throughout the Gulf emirates, we have allied ourselves with tyrants, and in North Africa, too, we are backing the killers – in Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia, as well as in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Pakistan. So what game are we playing? What’s the objective behind the “democratic” rhetoric, which only a fool, an opportunist on the make – or a very desperate man – would take at face value?

The idea that we are trying to “drain the swamp” where terrorism breeds by injecting a healthy dose of democratic chlorine to cleanse the place of totalitarian vermin does not pass the empirical test, because the exact opposite is happening. In response to U.S. military intervention, the vermin are multiplying far beyond the numbers they would normally achieve. We are Osama bin Laden’s best recruiting agents: as Michael Scheuer, the former CIA analyst and author of the best-selling Imperial Hubris, put it, we are al-Qaeda’s “one indispensable ally.”

Assuming, for the moment, that al-Qaeda has not successfully infiltrated the Bush administration and bent American foreign policy to bin Laden’s nefarious purposes, we have to ask: why? Why is U.S. policy, not only in Iraq but throughout the Middle East, in such obvious contravention to America’s actual interests?

Two scholars who have recently asked this question have come up with a controversial, albeit incontrovertible, answer: the pro-Israel lobby, which has worked tirelessly and with remarkable success to shape American foreign policy as if Israeli and American interests were identical – which they are not. As John Mearsheimer, the noted “realist” professor at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, academic dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, wrote in a now-famous “working paper” for the Kennedy School:

The U.S. national interest should be the primary object of American foreign policy. For the past several decades, however, and especially since the Six Day War in 1967, the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering U.S. support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized U.S. security. This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the United States been willing to set aside its own security in order to advance the interests of another state?”

Answer: The Lobby. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), now embroiled in a spy case, is rated the second heaviest hitter in the world of Washington lobbyists, second only to the AARP but ahead of the powerful gun lobby. Israel garners more foreign aid from the U.S. than any other recipient, and, what’s more, enjoys near unconditional political and military support from the U.S., in return for – nothing. Instead, they sell arms to the Chinese, spy on us, and otherwise thumb their noses at all attempts to rein them in and effect some kind of peaceful compromise in the occupied territories.

Rather than follow the conventional wisdom, both left and right, and ascribe American behavior in the region exclusively or even primarily to the desire to control the oil fields, Mearsheimer and Walt point to the influence of the Lobby in making sure American policy serves Israeli interests. Indeed, in their view, the entire democracy-building project functions as little more than a bulldozing expedition designed to level as many Arab regimes in the Middle East as possible. In this view, the war in Iraq is part of a larger region-wide campaign to make the Middle East safe for Israel.

The authors of the Kennedy School paper trace the by now familiar genealogy of the neoconservative ascension to power, and detail how the neocons – devoted to Israel as a matter of high principle – honeycombed the present administration, taking key positions and insinuating themselves into the councils of state, particularly in the Pentagon and the Office of the Vice President. The all-pervasive influence of the Lobby does much to explain the direction of U.S. foreign policy in the post-9/11 era, and this dominance, in order to be effective, had to be masked, at least somewhat.

Which leads us to another reason why the export of democracy is a bad policy, which does not serve our real interests: It lends itself too easily to manipulation by special interest groups with an agenda. Just as millions of immigrants will move to the imperial metropolis to seek their fortunes, so their governments won’t be far behind: the same was true of Rome, which sent supplicants to petition the Emperor and arbitrate local disputes in favor of one or another of the disputants. Rhodes lobbied against Cappadocia, while Rome’s allies took up the cause of civilizing the barbarians from Germany to Central Asia, in return for special privileges and payoffs. Eventually, barbarian mercenaries patrolled the frontiers of the Roman Empire, in place of Roman legionnaires, and, one day, they marched on Rome and sacked the place. Whether that is our destiny, too, remains purely speculative, of course – but the many uses of an imperialistic policy to various foreign lobbies ought to be fairly obvious.

The idea that the U.S. can or should impose its own system – or a local version of it, adapted to regional realities – is a dangerous fantasy dressed up to look like a policy, a snare and a delusion. It pretends to be a doctrine of the most exalted idealism, when, in reality, it masks the most venal motives, nearly all of them hidden, aside from being designed to enrich its advocates. It is no accident that the War Party’s most outspoken champions, such as Richard Perle, stood to personally profit from the interventionist policies they fought for and defended. Follow the money is a reliable rule of thumb as far as these things go, and the democracy-promotion business is certainly no exception.

But that’s just the gravy: the main course is regime change for its own sake, as a pure expression of American power. Whether it is done directly, by the exertions of the U.S. military, or indirectly, via such propaganda outfits as the National Endowment for Democracy and other U.S. government agencies, the goal is the same: projecting American hegemony beyond its present frontiers, until all possible rivals are eliminated. A de facto global state, enforcing what the internationalists call a “new world order,” as George Bush Sr. once put it, is the ultimate goal of our rulers. That this represents a threat to American patriots, as well as to the patriots of every other nation on earth, is a realization that may dawn too late on conservatives in the U.S. – but better late than never.

In gaining the whole world, will we lose our souls in the process, along with our national identity? This is the greatest danger of our present foreign policy, one that lies behind all the other questions and objections to interventionism. The temptation of Empire may prove irresistible to our elites, who are, in any event, too drunk with power and their own self-importance to care about the long-term consequences of their policies, and in no position to lead us out of our present crisis. We will, in the end, be struck down by our own hubris: pride, as the old saw put it, goeth before a fall. They can’t say, however, that they weren’t warned…

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].