Sunday, November 14, 2004

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: Barren Ground for Democracy

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: Barren Ground for Democracy:
"Whether one views the war in Iraq as a noble effort in democratization or a brutal exercise in imperialism, there can be little doubt that it has proved the proverbial 'bridge too far' for those who planned and, like myself, supported it. While much has been made of the strategic missteps the Bush administration has made since the Saddam Hussein regime was toppled, it seems likely that even the best—executed occupation would have been a daunting prospect. "

What we are witnessing is a legacy of history and geography — factors often denied by both liberal and conservative interventionists — catching up with America. Had our political leaders considered such factors, I suspect, they might have avoided some of the disasters of the occupation. These factors should also give President Bush pause as he plans to "spread freedom" in his second term. To see all this clearly, one must look at the campaign in the Persian Gulf region not as an isolated effort but as the culmination of a decade-long effort to bring the vast lands of the defunct Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and Asia into the modern world and the Western orbit.

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, communist satellites like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary promptly evolved into successful Western democracies. This transition was relatively easy because the countries boasted high literacy rates, exposure to the Enlightenment under Prussian and Hapsburg emperors, and strong industrial bases and middle classes prior to World War II and the cold war. In retrospect, it seems clear that only the presence of the Red Army had kept them from developing free parliamentary systems on their own.

But the idea that Western-style democracy could be imposed further east and south, in the Balkans, has proved more problematic. Beyond the Carpathian mountains one finds a different historical legacy: that of the poorer and more chaotic Ottoman Empire. Before World War II, this was a world of vast peasantries and feeble middle classes, which revealed itself in Communist governments that were for the most part more corrupt and despotic than those of Central Europe.

Unsurprisingly, upon Communism's collapse, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania struggled for years on the brink of anarchy, although they at least avoided ethnic bloodshed. Of course, Yugoslavia was not so lucky. Though democracy appears to have a reasonably bright future there thanks to repeated Western intervention, it is wise to recall that for 15 years it has been a touch-and-go proposition.

Undeterred, Wilsonian idealists in the United States next put Iraq on their list for gun-to-the-head democratization. But compared with Iraq, even the Balkans were historically blessed, by far the most culturally and politically advanced part of the old Turkish Empire. Mesopotamia, on the other hand, constituted the most anarchic and tribalistic region of the sultanate.

… In the 1990's, those supporting humanitarian intervention in Yugoslavia branded references to difficult history and geography as "determinism" and "essentialism" — academic jargon for fatalism. In the views of liberal internationalists and neoconservatives, group characteristics based on a shared history and geography no longer mattered, for in a post-cold war world of globalization everyone was first and foremost an individual. Thus if Poland, say, was ready overnight for Western-style democracy, then so too were Bosnia, Russia, Iraq — and Liberia, for that matter.

That line of thinking provided the moral impetus for military actions in 1995 in Bosnia and in 1999 in Kosovo: interventions that reclaimed the former Yugoslavia into the Western orbit. But the people who ordered and carried out those interventions, liberal Democrats in general, were canny. While they agreed with the idealists' moral claims, they realized that it was the feasibility of the military side of the equation that made the interventions ultimately worth doing. Yes, they also favored democracy in places like Liberia, but they were wise enough not to risk the lives of Americans in such endeavors. They intuited that a modest degree of fatalism was required in the conduct of international affairs, even if they were clever enough not to publish the fact.

By invading Iraq, Republican neoconservatives — the most fervent of Wilsonians — simply took that liberal idealist argument of the 1990's to its logical conclusion. Indeed, given that Saddam Hussein was ultimately responsible for the violent deaths of several times more people than the Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic, how could any liberal in favor of intervention in the Balkans not also favor it in the case of Iraq? And because the human rights abuses in Iraq showed no sign of abatement, much like those in the Balkans, our intervention was justified in order to stop an ongoing rape-and-killing machine.

But rather than a replay of the Balkans in 1995 and 1999, Iraq has turned out like the Indian mutiny against the British in 1857 and 1858, when the attempts of Evangelical and Utilitarian reformers in London to modernize and Christianize India — to make it more like England — were met with a violent revolt against imperial rule.

As for our overstretched military, increasingly it will have to work unobtrusively through native surrogates in the hunt for terrorists: for as the histories of Rome, France and Britain all reveal, the successful projection of power is less about direct action than about the training and subsequent use of indigenous troops.

Moreover, in a world where every field operation is subject to intense scrutiny by global news media, the only empire that can be broadly acceptable is one consisting of behind-the-scenes relationships. That, in turn, will require an increased emphasis on what academics and diplomats call "area expertise." A good model can be found in "Wax and Gold," a classic work of area studies about the Amhara people of Ethiopia written by the sociologist Donald N. Levine of the University of Chicago in 1965. Mr. Levine defined pragmatism as a respect for liberal progress not in a fixed, ideological sense, but in terms of "the cultural context" in which such progress takes place: each people and terrain according to its own pace of political development, in other words.

While democracy can take root anywhere (look at Indonesia and Afghanistan), it cannot be imposed overnight anywhere.
con·cept: The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: Barren Ground for Democracy