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Don’t Democratize

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the neoconservative view of the world is correct. The world contains a number of states dedicated to threatening U.S. allies and perpetrating terrorist attacks. Although the war on terror has already involved the invasion of two major Muslim countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), a third country, Iran, has now emerged as a new threat. The proposed solution is the democratization of the whole planet—in George W. Bush’s words, “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

During most of the Cold War, the hawks whom we now call neoconservatives dismissed all talk of resolving international disputes through treaties or international organizations. They scoffed at the sight of Jimmy Carter leading the geriatric Leonid Brezhnev by the arm to sign the latest bilateral arms-reduction treaty. They insisted that Soviet expansionism needed to be contained by military might. Yet even while Ronald Reagan and Caspar Weinberger proactively stepped full throttle on military spending to defeat the Soviets, no one suggested pre-emptively attacking their nuclear installations.

That belief was known as the doctrine of deterrence. Since the end of the Cold War it has been consigned to the dustbin of history. Today’s neocons do not conclude from the possibility that Iran might obtain the bomb that countermeasures must be taken to deter her from ever using it. Instead, they bleat that Iran is infringing the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—one of the stupidest treaties ever to have entered the annals of diplomacy because it elevates hypocrisy to a principle of international law by saying that only some states are allowed to have nuclear warheads—just as they alleged, falsely, that Saddam Hussein’s sin was to have violated some 12-year-old and largely forgotten Security Council resolutions.

In the academic jargon of international-relations theory, therefore, the hawks have shifted from realism to idealism. Whereas previously they believed that the only reality in international relations was force, they are now drenched in that universalist faith in international institutions that is usually associated with the arch-idealist Woodrow Wilson. To be sure, some neocons bluster against the UN, but President Bush’s stated goal of liberating the whole of humanity is far closer to the one-world ideology that inspired the creation of the League of Nations than it is to the pessimistic realpolitik of Henry Kissinger.

The main difference between Woodrow Wilson and the neocons today is that the universalist ideology that they use to liquidate recalcitrant societies contains a double strychnine dose of one-world economic globalization plus the homogenized trash culture of MTV and its associated vices of drugs and sex. Western opponents of the “evil empire” were right when they calculated that the slab-faced old Commies sitting behind desks in Moscow would be no match for the pony-tailed new Commies who sang with John Lennon, “Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, No religion too.” Just as the walls of Jericho were brought down by trumpets, and just as General Noriega was flushed out of the Papal Nunciature in Managua in 1989 by blaring rock music, so what remained of social conservatism behind the Berlin Wall was instantly dissolved by the hideous cacophony of Western postmodernism.

This abandonment of deterrence shows that political-ideological leveling out, what the Nazis called Gleichschaltung, is the key to the neocon view of the world. Whereas deterrence assumed that the existence, somewhere in the world, of unfriendly and even evil regimes was as certain as death and taxes, and that a wise government consequently needed to keep such threats at bay, the neocons today believe that the very existence of hostile or even nonaligned regimes is a threat. Deterrence assumed a certain degree of political pluralism on the planet, whereas neocons believe with George W. Bush that “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” Today’s neocons are the modern Athenians who told the inhabitants of Melos that their neutrality in the war against Sparta was intolerable.

Neocons believe, as George W. Bush said in 2002, that the great struggles of the 20th century have ended in the decisive victory of “a single sustainable model for national success.” They welcomed the end of the Cold War precisely because it overcame the division of the world into competing political systems and seemed to create in its place the beginnings of a monolithic unipolar world system with America and American values—especially universal human rights—as its ideological core. Islam presents an obstacle to the full realization of this goal and this is why neocons have now announced that they intend to “democratize” the whole of the Middle East as well.

Yet it is these underlying beliefs about the international system that give the lie to the neocon claim to want to democratize the planet. Even if we leave aside the abuses committed in the name of democratization—from 1953, when the CIA overthrew Prime Minister Mossadegh of Iran, to 2004, when spooky American technicians of regime change installed a friendly government in Kiev—it is simply incredible that a plan for worldwide democratization should now involve singling out Iran as an enemy. For the Islamic Republic of Iran is undoubtedly one of the most advanced democracies in the Muslim world.

Such a statement will doubtless surprise those who think of Iran as groaning under the yoke of a stifling theocracy and who associate it with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But there is no denying that the normal state institutions of the Islamic Republic are impeccably democratic. The president and the legislature are directly elected by universal suffrage, including women; the political system is extremely vibrant, the latest presidential election having been far more hotly contested than the equivalent one in 2005 in Egypt; there is a basically free press, in which politicians including the president are frequently criticized, and the Iranian constitution gives equal rights to all citizens irrespective of race or sex, forbids the investigation of individuals’ beliefs and the state inspection of letters or other forms of private communication, and guarantees habeas corpus, the presumption of innocence, and equality before the law. The Islamic Republic’s political system is at the very antipodes of the absolute monarchy that reigns in neighboring Saudi Arabia, America’s ally. There are no elements of democracy whatever in that country’s national political life, which is why many Iranian leaders, including the fiery president, regard it as disgracefully backward.

To be sure, the Iranian constitution also contains peculiar elements found in no other state, most importantly the office of Supreme Leader, who commands the armed forces, appoints the Council of Guardians—a theological body that scrutinizes laws passed by the legislature—and controls the state broadcasting network and the police. These powers are not wielded democratically. But all states contain constitutional elements that are specifically designed to mitigate the effects of direct democracy, the U.S. Supreme Court being the best example of a powerful unelected body that intervenes actively in matters of public policy in the name of unchangeable principles. And whatever the written provisions in the Iranian constitution, it is undeniable that the country’s domestic politics are extremely fluid. Indeed one of the country’s main failings is that the various factions battle it out so overtly that the rule of law suffers considerably: Iranian citizens often do not know which way state authority is going to strike next.

Finally, even the theocratic elements in the Iranian constitution themselves draw legitimacy—however bogusly—from the Islamic Revolution’s claim to have been a democratic movement. I do not personally care for revolutions of any kind, but there can be little doubt that the 1979 Iranian revolution did in fact succeed because of popular hatred for a dictatorial foreign-backed regime. Add to all this the fact that the form of Islam preached in Iran is itself self-consciously progressive—even conservative Iranian clerics dismiss the Islam of the Taliban or the Wahhabis as atavistic—and you have a country that American democratists ought to embrace as a model for the rest of the Muslim world.

But as the horrified reaction to the election of Hamas in Palestine shows, the neocon commitment to democratization is as much about free choice as are the options offered to a shopkeeper when the Mafia comes round to collect the protection money. “It’s up to you,” the gangsters say as they crack their knuckles with a nonchalant smirk. “You can do what you like. But your sister over there, now she’s a very pretty girl …” A commitment to democracy implies a commitment to pluralism and to the possibility that people may make choices with which we do not agree. This is precisely why neoconservatives are determined to prevent it.


John Laughland is a writer and author living in London. He is co-editor of Israel on Israel, to be published by Vallentine Mitchell (London, England & Portland, Oregon) in March.

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