Alas, Babylon

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Here's the single most bizarre exchange about Iraq to take place in the "prestige" media. Thanks to PBS's Newshour, you can hear a pro-war American shrinking Jeffersonian democracy to bring it within the grasp of Iraq, and an anti-war Arab-American dismissing Iraqis as incapable of achieving democracy at all.

The premise of the debate was Bush's AEI speech pushing Iraqi democratization as a war goal. Defending Bush, Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy adopted a strategy of noting America's own historical flaws, as in "Look, it took 140 years after our own Declaration of Independence before women got the vote here," and "Jefferson's democracy involved slave ownership and the right to vote only for males who owned property." As history, these remarks are unexceptional; as pro-Bush, pro-war talking points, however, they're startling. Clawson's extraordinary bottom line: "I think that Iraq will do better than" the U.S. in building a fair democracy quickly.

The responses from the Syrian-born Murhaf Jouejati, a resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, were even more startling. Bush had invoked Germany and Japan as models of postwar democracy-building. Jouejati rejected the German example because Iraq "has never had a democratic tradition" despite "thousands of years of history." What about Japan? No good either, because "unlike Japan, which is homogeneous, [Iraq] is divided along ethnic and sectarian lines." Jouejati's conclusion: "Democratization is wonderful," but Iraq by its nature can't hope to achieve it in the foreseeable future.

Iraq is a complex place, and (the issues of war itself aside) any democratization efforts will probably run into sectarian problems. But that's not a premise for futility. Mideast conclusions drawn from futility reflect either political cynicism or cultural despair, and the Mideast has long been floundering in too much of both.

NEXT: An exercise in vitriol rather than sound journalism

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  1. If people of various racial and ethic groups can’t learn to get along together, we might as well just push the button now. If Jouejati’s vision is a correct one, we’ve had it as a species. Thankfully, I don’t think everyone shares in his pessimism.

  2. It is certainly the case that transitions from one regime type to another is difficult. Further, democracy is harder to foster than, say, a strict authoritarian state. However, there have been, throughout the last 50 or so years, arguments that certain countries, cultures, etc., simply can’t “grow” democracies. In 1975, it was said that democracy was impossible as a modal type of government in Latin America, for example, now all but one of the countries in the region has at least electoral democracy. Who would have though in 1985 that most of Eastern Europe would be democratic? Many once argued that Asian cultures weren?t suited to democracy?would someone please inform the Taiwanese and the South Koreans? Indeed, in the mid-70s there was a prodigious literature that considered democracy as only one viable options amongst many, and that many locales simply weren?t suited for it.

    However, I would stringently argue that human being, with all their flaws, have the capacity to self-govern, and history has shown that any number of cultures have been able to function democratically.

  3. While it is not definitive, a data point in favor of successful democracy in Iraq is the northern Kurd “no fly zone” region.

    From what I’ve read they seem to have done pretty well the past dozen years.

  4. This whole argument assumes that the Bushies are serious about trying to achieve democracy and self determination in Iraq. Remember last year’s SOTU, in which Bush talked about human rights and equality for Afghan women? The religious police are still beating them with sticks for being insufficiently subordinate – except this time, it’s the government that we installed that’s doing the beating, torturing, and jailing.

    Look at education funding. Look at environmental policies. This administration talks a good game about liberal values, but never follows through. Now their giving the straight arm to Iraq’s democratic opposition, and talking about a military governor. Why should we trust their intentions this time?

  5. If you actually saw the interview you would be astounded by the cartoon-like Clawson giving his version of democracy in Iraq. He looked like Woody from Toy Story.

    The examples of Japan and Germany are just ludicrous – totally out of context to what’s happening today. Try looking at Afghanistan, Bosnia, Haiti or Colombia for some more recent puppets we’ve installed. The jury is, at the very least, out.

    The U.S. likes democracy when it serves their purpose or when it’s imposed at the point of a gun or the IMF. Turkey just exercised a little of it and my guess is the U.S. will make them pay for their indescretion.

  6. Joe: Screw your liberal environmental and education policies. The federal government has no business in either of those anyway.

  7. Funny, in Haiti, Aristide had been elected, but the governemnet refused to leave power, so Clinton sent troops to force them to install the legally elected Aristide, who couldn’t have been a worse choice for the United States. Puppet government indeed. Lefty, as usual, has a nearly total ignorance even of recent history; Karzai is hardly an American “puppet”. As for Germany and Japan being, as Lefty says, such Totally different situations that it is “ludicrous”even to compare Iraq to them–well, he doesn’t give any evidence for that assertion. Just thinks that whatever he wants to be true is merely because he says it.

  8. “Turkey just exercised a little of it and my guess is the U.S. will make them pay for their indiscretion”

    I’m sure we’d like to, but the list of countries that refuse to tow the line grows longer every week. My guess is that the U.S. economy will have collapsed before we get around to extracting our pound of flesh from Turkey.

  9. You’re right, Gabriel, Karzai isn’t a puppet. He is a decent, independent leader. Unfortunately, he’s completely hamstrung, and surrounded by warlords and Islamists, because Bush refused to stand up for democratic principles, and cut whatever deals we had to with local strongmen in order to get an allegedy cooperative government on the cheap. “Sharia police? Sure, as long I don’t have to delay my next tax cut!”

    Lefty, you wrote that “the US” only likes democracy when it’s used to bring other countries under our thumb. What about Haiti? What about Northern Ireland? I think you need to revise your statement to “Republicans” only like democracy when it brings other countries under our thumb. The majority of us like democracy even when another democratic country makes trouble for us.

    Steve, you’re a one trick pony. There are other issues in the world besides the proper role of the federal government. You remind me of those bikers who base every vote on helmet laws.

  10. Ah, Lefty and Warren…ever the pessimists, ever the “Bad, Bad, America-types”. Grow up and see how good you have it. Doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. Doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about loss of personal freedom. It does mean this is the worst of all countries….except all the other ones.

  11. “…this is the worst of all countries….except all the other ones.”

    I don’t disagree with that. My point is, that it is folly to attempt to remake other countries into islands of freedom at the point of a sword.

  12. Freedom is always won and maintained at the point or threat of a sword. There are no contrary examples.

  13. I’m sure the Iraqis are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the cool new Ashcroftian Democracy rather than that creepy old hypocritical Jeffersonian Democracy.

  14. Ashcroftian democracy? Cute.

  15. What makes everybody think democracy is so great anyway? Are people who don’t want democracy somehow sub-human? As for Japan, they kept their Emperor (albeit a figurehead) What about the Catholic Church, it’s not a democracy because morality can’t be determined by majority vote.

  16. What makes everybody think democracy is so great anyway? Are people who don’t want democracy somehow sub-human? As for Japan, they kept their Emperor (albeit a figurehead) What about the Catholic Church, it’s not a democracy because morality can’t be determined by majority vote.

  17. What makes everybody think democracy is so great anyway? Are people who don’t want democracy somehow sub-human? As for Japan, they kept their Emperor (albeit a figurehead) What about the Catholic Church, it’s not a democracy because morality can’t be determined by majority vote.

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