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Ideas (II)

On another Near Eastern policy topic of interest, Ross comments on Reza Aslan’s remarks on democratisation:

Aslan made a dismissive comment about the advocates of “stability” over democracy during his talk, saying sarcastically: “That’s worked out so well, hasn’t it?” And of course it hasn’t – except, Meridor’s remarks suggested, when you consider some of the alternatives.

Indeed.  I am tempted to rephrase Churchill’s line about democracy being the worst of all governments, except for all the others, replacing the word democracy with stability.  That would be a little too easy, but it would make the point.  Then again, I think Churchill was wrong about that–democracy is definitely in the bottom three or four, including all competitors. 

Aslan’s dismissiveness is typical of the democratists and interventionists.  When prolonged interventionism in the Near East contributes to blowback, they blame it on the pursuit of stability, as if there had been anything stabilising about the sanctions and ongoing air war against Iraq or as if the semi-permanent garrisoning of Americans in Saudi Arabia was a hallmark of genuine realism.  Depending on which group in the region you’re talking about, even that old “stability” was a lot better than the current approach.  So, yes, for some nations “stability” did work out relatively well, at least when compared to the disasters of the last few years.  The biggest problem with critiques of the policies of the ’90s is that they mistake those policies for being unduly cautious and afraid of change, when the establishment consensus by the late ’90s was for regime change in Iraq and fairly aggressive “containment” of Iran.  That this acquired frighteningly broad support in the foreign policy establishment shows just how flexible the name
“realist” really can be.  The goal in these cases was not stability, but upheaval.  Bizarrely, in turning against the “realism” and “stability” of the ’90s (which were simply expressions of a mild interventionism), the critics have embraced precisely the elements of those policies that were the most damaging, destabilising and counterproductive and sought to replicate them on an even grander scale.  Calls to “drain the swamp” would be a lot more convincing if the people making the recommendations had not just spent the last 12 years creating the swamp–not through their tolerance of despotism, but through their misguided, heavy-handed and clumsy attempts to combat despotism.

Ross makes an important observation:

If you’re an outside observer looking at Middle Eastern politics, it’s relatively easy to take the Aslan line – which is hardly his alone – and suggest that ten “messy” years, or fifty, or even a hundred, is a small price to pay for the eventual democratization of the region.  If you’re part of Middle Eastern politics, though, and particularly if you’re the most hated country in the region, the scapegoat for every failure and the demon at the heart of every conspiracy theory, it’s a lot harder to sign up for the bumpy ride, because one of those bumps might jeopardize your very survival.

This is good, but missing here are some critical questions.  Why should anyone have to pay the price for democratisation, regardless of how long it might take?  Why does democratisation have such importance on the Near Eastern policy agenda?  If Israelis have some reasons to be skeptical of the short and middle-term consequences of democratisation (which assumes that the long-term results of such change will be ultimately positive), perhaps other peoples in the region likewise have good reasons to doubt either the practicability or even the value of democratisation.  Even supposing that it is a widely-shared goal, democratisation is still ultimately no more than a framework for the expression of the existing political priorities of a nation.  Democratists’ abstract faith in the goodwill of the common man would be touching, if it were not so totally out of touch with the deep reserves of ill-will that many peoples harbour toward one another.   

Talk of “messiness” is the sort of abstraction about violence, death and social disintegration to which interventionists and their friends, the globalists and developmentalists, often return.  You can almost hear them quoting, approvingly, the wisdom of the humanitarian Buck Turgeson, “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed.  What I’m saying is that we’re talking about no more than 20 to 30 million casualties, tops!” 

If the short and middle-term consequences of something, be it democratisation or “increased diversity,” are extremely bad for social cohesion, social peace, a just ordering of the polity and the cultivation of a humane and decent order, that means that the policy is an extremely bad one.  I find it extraordinary that this rhetoric of “in the long run, we will all be better off” can still persuade after seeing where it has led in the 20th century.  If the long run involves running over a lot of people to get to the goal, maybe, just maybe, the goal is actually a bad one. 

To follow up on the omelette metaphor Ross mentions a little later, it does not seem to trouble these “big picture,” “broader canvas” types that their ends-justify-the-means morality entails that their, our, omelette sustenance comes from effectively devouring our fellow man or at least living off of the resources created by deliberately caused human suffering.  These are the humanitarians and cosmopolitans to whose enlightened perspective we  are meant to defer.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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