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"Go Get Yourself Some Democracy!"


The Bush administration and its fellow travelers struggled to make the case for war against Iraq. They tried and retried various arguments including Iraq’s supposed development of weapons of mass destruction, its violation of U.N. resolutions, its hypothesized links with Islamic terrorists, and the nefariousness of Saddam Hussein’s regime. None of these rationales proved very compelling and some, of course, were simply false.

Now President Bush has chosen to focus on the quirkiest justification of the bunch. This is the idea that waging war against Saddam Hussein would somehow bring democracy to the Middle East. We had to fight Iraq because Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator. And we had to install a democratic government, reducing terror by reducing the "democracy gap."

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, took this argument to extraordinary lengths when he asserted that attacking Iraq would encourage other Arab and Muslim countries to become democratic. Democratization was seen as both cause and consequence of a war against Iraq.

President Bush seems blissfully unaware of the thin ice he treads in this area. If Arab and Islamic countries are undemocratic, the West, with its manipulation of borders and national aspirations, must accept a great deal of the blame. Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon exist within their present boundaries because of political deal-making by western powers. It was the United States that deposed Mossadeq and propped up the Shah, that backed fundamentalist Islamic factions against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and that aided Saddam Hussein’s growth into the heavily armed monster it then so noisily deplored — and all with an eye to its own interests rather than the building of viable civil societies. It is with the support of the United States that undemocratic governments in Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaizhan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan continue to govern. When the U.S. unfurls the democracy banner to justify its designs on Iraq, it is no surprise that few in the region stand and salute.

As Friedman told the story, removing Saddam would force other regimes to reconsider their antiquated, rapacious, and non-representative ways. "It is not unreasonable to believe that if the U.S. removed Saddam and helped Iraqis build not an overnight democracy but a more accountable, progressive and democratizing regime, it would have a positive, transforming effect on the entire Arab world."

Ironically, "helping" the Iraqis to build such a regime meant dropping 3,000 bombs on them in 48 hours, assailing them with cluster bombs and depleted uranium munitions, unleashing hundreds of thousands of troops, carting them off wholesale into the night, and locking them indefinitely into prisons where they could be, at best, forgotten, or, at worst, brutalized by their American and British liberators.

This recalls Rousseau’s dictum for those who will not help in "discovering the general will" — they must be forced to be free. To date, it does not appear that other nations in the Middle East are rushing to embrace this model of democracy.

These arguments repeat an old error in American foreign policy that goes back to the sermonizing of the Wilson administration and continues through the Cold War to the present day. The problem with so much of the world, this way of thinking goes, is that it does not have democratic government. The solution, therefore, is for it to acquire same. (Under Bush and the Neo-Cons, of course, this argument has morphed into a neo-Liberal orthodoxy, devoid of any real democratic content.)

Those who favor such a notion rarely consider the complexity of the transition to western style democracy. History indicates that democracy emerges in specific parts of the world under specific economic, social, and historical circumstances. Where such circumstances are not present, democracy does not emerge. Such circumstances are not present in most of the nations of the Middle East. Indeed, the West often expended great effort in the Twentieth Century to insure that such conditions, and the institutions they might foster, were not present. Wishing now that conditions conducive to democracy were present will not make them so, even if our wishes are supported by military might.

If we are truly concerned about the emergence of representative institutions in the Middle East, we should nurture the circumstances under which democracy thrives rather than exploiting the area for its resources and engaging in divide-and-conquer power struggles. And, one feels compelled to say, just so the Bush administration gets the point, this would not include additional adventures in democracy by detonation.

GREGORY R. WEIHER is associate professor of political science at the University of Houston. He can be reached at gweiher@uh.edu.

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