In 2003, more than a month before the invasion of Iraq, I wrote in the Weekly Standard that the forthcoming fall of Baghdad “may turn out to be one of those hinge moments in history — events like the storming of the Bastille or the fall of the Berlin Wall — after which everything is different. If the occupation goes well (admittedly a big if), it may mark the moment when the powerful antibiotic known as democracy was introduced into the diseased environment of the Middle East, and began to transform the region for the better.”
At the time, this kind of talk was dismissed by pretty much everyone not employed by the White House as neocon nuttiness. Democracy in the Middle East? Introduced by way of Iraq? You’ve got to be kidding! The only real debate in sophisticated circles was whether those who talked of democracy were simply naive fools or whether their risible rhetoric was meant to hide some sinister motive.
Well, who’s the simpleton now? Those who dreamed of spreading democracy to the Arabs or those who denied that it could ever happen? Of course, the outcome is far from clear, and even in Iraq democracy is hardly well established. Yet some pretty extraordinary things have been happening in the last few weeks. ~Max Boot
Since Mr. Boot has been able in the past to believe that neocons are both conservative and Wilsonian (and that in the same article), we should be careful whenever he uses the term ‘neocon’. He doesn’t think today’s neoconservatism has anything to do with what neoconservatism originally was, even though its “key tenet,” support for Israel, has been the common, guiding light of the movement in foreign policy (which he admits is their main concern) from the beginning. Neocon must be an undefinable and elusive label, if he can thus fill it and empty it of meaning at will.
However, one needs only read several of the brilliant essays in the late Samuel Francis’ Beautiful Losers to know that neoconservatism has not changed much at all from its incarnation in the 1980s, certainly not with respect to any of the main areas in which real conservatives criticise them. Their accommodation with the welfare state, democratist ideology, interventionist foreign policy, the embrace of the modern corporate-state condominium and the general consolidation and centralisation of power in relatively few hands in Washington are the few constants in a movement of agile and duplicitous political operatives.
Regarding his piece for the Los Angeles Times, I’ll say this first. He shouldn’t be asking such a rhetorical question about being a simpleton when there is a real danger that the answer will be: the neocons. It is still far from clear that the “spread of democracy” is a) actually happening b) sustainable or c) good for America. For the neocons to crow about their supposedly correct predictions, as they are doing in stereo during the past two weeks, they would have to show that all of these criteria have been met, as they have claimed all three of them to be true and interdependent.
Let us suppose, entering into the heady world of democratic delusion, that some elements of something we might recognise as democracy (i.e., a political process governed by majority votes of political equals together with universal or near-universal suffrage in the context of a plebiscitary or parliamentary election) are indeed spreading in the Near East. This would be surprising to me, but life is full of surprises. If this were the case, then as a citizen of the predominant world power I would be very afraid for the position of my country around the globe and horrified at the likely violence that would attend its beginning, as violence has almost always attended the birth of self-consciously democratic politics. This is not usually the violence of the old order, which fails by and large because it is no longer willing or able to preserve its power, but of the Dionysian mass bursting forth arrogantly to claim its supposed birthright.
It is a proposition of neocon ideology that American interests and the expansion of democracy basically coincide. To make this proposition true a great deal of conceptual violence has to be done to either one’s understanding of American interests or democracy, or both, as it is not a notion that endures close scrutiny well.
The simpleton would see in these momentary, transitory events something of epochal significance. The simpleton, prone to cheap and easy ideological slogans, will see a few thousand people waving signs and chanting in Lebanon and probably see in it a genuine mass movement of lasting strength and significance. If the simpleton wishes to appear intelligent, as Mr. Boot tries so very hard to do, he will say, “It is too soon to tell, but all the signs are very promising.” To be fair, there are antiwar simpletons, too, who thought that the sheer number of antiwar protesters in 2002-03 meant something or could accomplish something. The confidence in so-called “people power” was touching in its naivete. Invariably, these protests only have as much power as the local government and, in recent cases, the mob’s foreign backers or cheerleaders are willing to allow or lend them.
The simpleton will imagine that an autocrat condescending to allow a “free election” in Egypt marks the opening of the floodgates of popular sentiment that will be something other than a rapid, destructive deluge once it is truly on its way. There is the assumption that a “free election” in Egypt will be good for Egyptians. One may as well hope for good things for Egyptians by destroying Aswan dam and letting the river return to its natural, often unpredictable surges and droughts. It is not simply a question of whether some sort of democracy in Egypt is in American interests, but whether, in the interests of Egyptians, it is actually preferable to the genuine stability they possess today.
The natural outcome of the local Saudi elections was the empowerment of the Wahhabist clergy and their sympathisers, the very sorts of people who have bound the monarchy in their Faustian pact of ideological support in exchange for Riyadh’s bankrolling of extremism throughout the world. This will be the likely electoral outcome in many Egyptian districts, too, as the Muslim Brotherhood there has been able to play the role of suffering dissident long enough to gain credibility with many ordinary Egyptians as somehow representing their own grievances. Whether or not such Islamists remain ‘true’ to the democratic process that will empower them is beside the point: government based either on fulfilling desires or choking off most of human activity is equally perverse and bound to collapse.
That a fundamentally oppressive, collectivist politics will succeed in a future democratic process in Egypt should be no surprise, as government intrusiveness and collectivism are the natural by-products of all mass-based governments. One wonders whether there will come a time in thirty or forty years, if these elections actually do occur, when young Egyptians longingly look back on the reign of the ‘good king’ Hosni, who had kept the ravages of popular rule, and its confiscatory impulses, at bay for so many years. Simpletons, such as Mr. Boot, could not imagine such an outcome, as it is a basic axiom and indeed the core of their entire worldview that all people everywhere desire “freedom and democracy.” But, in fact, these things appear to be luxuries that already successful societies indulge in, not those that the struggling and developing nations first embrace as their main instrument for self-strengthening and reform. In times of economic, social or political distress, democracies are the first kind of government to fail or turn to excessively interventionist and confiscatory policies. Who was the simpleton who ever believed that this was the optimal form of government for developing nations beset with an incredibly large host of economic, social and political problems?
The human impulse, especially the impulse of the mass man, is to look for some authoritative, often overly simplistic, solution to complex problems. Modern Americans, including Mr. Boot, are no different: instead of looking for a ‘man on a horse’ as such, so to speak, many Americans now look to Democracy to fix any variety of problems at home and abroad. Democracy is the mantra invoked and the idol propitiated on almost all sides by the supersititious modern to ward off his fears, be they of terrorism or imperialism, the government or corporations, the religious fanatic or the godless intellectual. If only we had more of this Democracy, so many people seem to be saying, then everything would be better. Yet greater democratisation simply begs the question: how is enfranchising and empowering the very people who seem completely unable to address their country’s problems at the moment going to assist in solving those problems in the future? Is the push for democratisation not actually an irrational distraction of the necessary energies and attention of a people away from the essential reform work? Can a regime based on such unstable foundations really endure?
Is it really desirable, from the American perspective, that the relatively great predictability of Near Eastern politics over the past several decades disappear and be replaced by constantly shifting and unstable political alignments? Our politicians seem bewildered enough now as it is, and this has been when the basic political structures of the region had remained largely what they were, save Iraq, in the mid to late 1980s. Just imagine how lost Washington will be in trying to chart a course in the exceedingly choppy waters of the Near East when the “Arab street” actually gains real political power and ceases to be a mythical force cited nervously by Arabists and ridiculed by neocons, becoming instead the base for organised political groups that will come to shape the foreign policy of these once-pliant states. Who, indeed, will be judged the simpleton then?