Saturday, January 22, 2005

Bush Administration: Watchmaker or Monkey?

Ladies and gentlemen, the President of these United States:

America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

And with these words President Bush has upgraded democracy promotion to the centerpiece of American foreign-policy. No longer shall it be the redheaded stepchild of invasion rationales. Forevermore it shall be our raison d'etre. Or something.

Of course, as the saying goes, talk is cheap. It's easy to stand before a fawning crowd and declare your intention to spread freedom and end tyranny across the globe. But, as we know from previous discussion (here and here), democracy is no simple thing. It is a delicate and highly complicated sociopolitical organizing structure, each component of which must operate within a fairly narrow set of parameters. It is like a fine antique watch whose cogs must operate smoothly for it to be a precision instrument. If those cogs fail, the watch ceases to be a timepiece and instead becomes a useless chunk of metal. "Democracy" without its infrastructure is worth no more.

Thus far I remain unconvinced that this administration truly understand the dimensions of the problem. They speak as though they were master watchmakers, yet they act like a bunch of monkeys with hammers. Our most recent foray into "democracy promotion" makes this completely clear.

The January 30 elections have been hailed for months as the long awaited light at the end of the tunnel. It is on this day that a free and democratic Iraq will supposedly emerge from the darkness of Saddam's tyrannical rule. But while the dark shadow of the Baathist regime has faded, is clear that what replaces it is anything but free and democratic.

Let's assume for a moment that the elections proceed and its results are accepted as legitimate. If that occurs it is true that Iraq has taken a gigantic step towards democratic government. However, a tremendous amount of work remains. At that point there will still be no permanent constitution. Without one, there are no long term guarantees for free political expression, no lasting restrictions on the government's use of force, and no enduring promise of future elections. Yes, the fact that there is no permanent constitution at this juncture is by design -- the primary task of the newly elected representatives is to compose one. But acknowledging its absence is important if we are to understand Iraq's current stage of development.

Culturally, Iraq stands even further from the goal. At present it appears that there is little support for the constitutional principles necessary for sustained democratic rule. Neither the Shi'ite majority nor the Sunni minority are interested in any sort of power-sharing arrangement. In fact, it's not clear that any of the fundamental principles of democracy are alive in Iraq. As a case in point, here is Edward Luttwak (via Erik Martin) of Foreign Affairs:
Of course, many Iraqis... [view] democracy as a simple affair that any child can understand. That is certainly the opinion of the spokesmen of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, for example. They have insistently advocated early elections in Iraq, brushing aside the need for procedural and substantive preparations as basic as the compilation of voter rolls, and seeing no need to allow time for the gathering of consensus by structured political parties. However moderate he may be, the pronouncements attributed to Sistani reveal a confusion between democracy and the dictatorial rule of the majority, for they imply that whoever wins 50.01 percent of the vote should have all of the governing power. That much became clear when Sistani's spokesmen vehemently rejected Kurdish demands for constitutional guarantees of minority rights. Shiite majority rule could thus end up being as undemocratic as the traditional Sunni-Arab ascendancy was.
And remember, this is what we get if the elections run smoothly. If they don't (something that seems more and more likely), it's hard to see how civil war is averted.

Perhaps the current situation in Iraq is a product of the path we took to get there. If our intent had been to install democracy from the start, and we had not been distracted by the "threat" of WMDs and "ties" to Al Qaeda, perhaps we would have been able to avoid the pitfalls we currently face. And so, perhaps our future efforts will not be accurately predicted by our success or failure there.

But the path we took is indicative of the delicacy of our methods. We move with all the grace of a bull in a china shop. Our desire to create is dwarfed by our ability to destroy. These are not the characteristics of the master watchmaker. If we are to become an agent for the advancement of democracy, our methods must reflect the fragility of its design. Until they do, we will promote nothing but chaos.

Update: Repaired a slightly misleading assertion regarding the existence of an Iraqi constitution. Of course, a transitional constitution currently exists. However, its temporary nature prevents it from providing long-term stability to democratic infrastructures. It is only once a permanent constitution is composed and approved (one that guarantees free expression, limits on governmental power, regular elections, etc.) that the people of Iraq will be able to develop confidence in democratic government.
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