The Democracy Fetish

Here’s a dark thought swirling around my mind today. Israel and Hezbollah, via the US, France and the UN, have entered into a cease-fire. Hezbollah capo Hassan Nasrallah promptly claimed victory, and there have even been firework celebrations in Lebanon on the news that Hezbollah has “defeated” Israel. On the battlefield it did no such thing. Hezbollah merely survived, and Nasrallah was unfortunately not on the receiving end of a package of high explosives during the contest. The world is so much worse for that.

This having been a post-modern summertime war, Hezbollah’s survival was enough for it to claim victory; Israel is “defeated” because it didn’t destroy every last Hezbollah man and missile. This is how assymmetrical warfare works. Hezbollah’s popularity in Lebanon is probably at its peak; Israeli PM Olmert is weakened. Lebanon is nominally a democracy. Democracies tend to put popular politicians and parties into office, and turn out unpopular or ineffective ones. The good side of that is that Olmert may soon be replaced by Netanyahu or a stronger, more vigorous presence. But there’s a big down side north of the blue line. Out with that Syrian stooge and in with…Nasrallah’s stooge?

We have made a lot of the effort to democratize the Middle East. It’s the centerpiece of our war effort there, so much so that we play democratization up and our own national survival down. President Bush made a lot out of the power of democracy to stop terrorism during his presser today (never mind that the UK airline terrorists mostly grew up in democracy’s embrace). Pretty soon, we’re probably going to see what a mistake all of that democracy talk has been.

The Palestinians have already elected Hamas to run their government. Hamas is a junior terror partner to Hezbollah. It’s not at all inconceivable that Lebanon will elect Hezbollah either into power in its own right or into a governing coalition when (or if) they get the chance (I say “if” because Hezbollah could take over by force, which would actually be the convenient option for us at this point). Hezbollah is already part of the government, even before “defeating” Israel. Over in Iraq, our democratization project has put an Iran-leaning fellow into the prime seat and thug cleric Muqtada al-Sadr remains a popular figure there as well. He’s another who should have played catch with a daisy cutter, but we stayed our hand.

Our rationale for opposing these regimes, if the one in Lebanon comes about the one in Iraq chooses its path poorly, and if both are democratically elected, is going to take a massive hit. As will the notion that democracies don’t engage in terrorism, and the notion that democracies don’t fight one another. We’ll have a handful of terrorist democracies fighting Israel, a democracy, and the rest of of the West–a democracy bang-up derby.

Having played down our own national interests for years and having played up democracy as the centerpiece of our war strategy (a strategy I’ve supported, fwiw), we’ll have to do a national pirouette if the time comes when we’re facing off against a handful of democratically elected terrorist states. Such a moment will at least be clarifying, since we won’t have to pretend that we’re fighting a small minority of that region anymore. We’ll be fighting against the majority and that majority’s chosen governments. The gloves might at last come off, if we still have the will to throw a real punch.

But we’ll be fighting against true majorities with, until President Bush leaves office anyway, an administration that has a very hard time getting past 40% approval. What then of our democracy fetish?

More: I’m getting some email on this, so I probably need to clarify a point or two. First, I supported and continue to support the attempt to bring democracy to the Middle East. That part of the world has had every form of government, from theocracy to the secular strongman to whatever you’d want to call the House of Saud’s symbiotic relationship with Wahhabism, and they all produce terrorists. The one model that hasn’t been tried within America’s protection is democracy. So it’s worth a shot.

But we should be clear about something. We’re not dealing with pre-1787 America in Iraq. We’re dealing with a completely different culture with an entirely different worldview from ours. As I just wrote to someone who has emailed me about this post, it turns out that values and bedrock beliefs do matter to whether democracy can take root and what it may become. In the colonies, most Americans were either Christians or at least accepted the basics of the Judeo-Christian worldview. In that worldview, the individual has inalienable rights given by God (not the king or government), and the individual life is worth something. Our entire system is based on that premise, with the additional wisdom that man is imperfect and therefore needs the power of government run by men hemmed in with checks and balances, and the built-in possibility of amending the system to correct grave injustices like slavery (and it still took a horrific war to correct that one). In the Islamic teachings, there are no inalienable rights and the individual’s life is worth a great deal less; an individual outside Islam is either an enemy or a subject until he converts. In the radicalized or post-reformation Islam that’s been on the rise for decades now, the individual in this life is worth nothing compared to the rewards that await him after martyrdom. Creating democracy in that soil has proven difficult, because as it turns out the worldview we’re dealing with isn’t the same one George Washington and the American founders believed in. We need to come to grips with that reality, imho. Until we do, and probably for a long time after, we’re going to be disappointed with the progress of democracy in the Middle East.

We would, in the end and in my humble opinion, be better off taking a more nationalistic view of the war. We were attacked, and the war that has followed is our attempt to make sure no one dares attack us like that ever again. Are we succeeding in sending that message? I don’t think so, and in the end getting that message across is the way we win the war. Democracy where our enemies once reigned is a side-benefit, not the objective.

To put it another way, we didn’t set out on December 8, 1941 to democratize Japan. We set out to defeat it first, because it had attacked us. The democracy that flourishes there today is the fruit of America’s victory, not the cause of it.