Friday, January 21, 2005
Some Post-Inaugural Thoughts
With all the talk yesterday, both by President Bush himself, and by the too numerous to count commentators and pundits, my mind started down a line of thinking that I’m really not sure what to make of. So in the spirit of intellectual curiosity, I will try to formulate some of my thoughts onto the blog and see what, if anything, my cohorts have to say.
It appears, at least to me, that while the President spoke eloquently about the need for the "success of liberty in other lands" and the "expansion of freedom in all the world" the equation for providing these laudable goals seemed flawed, or maybe oversimplified. The nagging question that I have been asking myself since listing to the President is what does Democracy have to do with freedom or liberty? The answer, unfortunately, is very little. Now I’m well aware of the Churchill adage that "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others," but that obscures the more fundamental questions. For example, why is it that the Jan. 30 Iraqi elections are of such importance to the Administration and pundits, that neither can seem to talk about the country (good or bad) without mentioning them? Why was the recent election in Afghanistan lauded by almost everyone as the ultimate triumph of freedom over tyranny, while the recent "elections" in Palestine and the Ukraine were not met with the same jubilant reaction? What is the relationship between freedom, liberty, self-determination and democracy? Here’s where I keep ending up; it seems to me that the President and this Administration have bought into a simple equation that it now seeks to export around the world. Simply put, the equation being exported is: Elections = Democracy = Freedom and Liberty.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it. Simple, eloquent, achievable, and well, honestly, highly dubious once you start to scrutinize it. Let’s start with the first part of the equation; the holding of elections means that a country is a democracy. While it is certainly true that elections are a crucial element of a democratic form of government, one does not necessarily flow from the other. In other words, it is possible to hold "elections" without being a democracy. As my fellow commentator Paul pointed out sometime last month (I think it was then, but I couldn't find the post), the United States is an example of where this corollary breaks down. America routinely holds federal elections, every 2 years to be precise, but we are not a democracy. Gasp... wait, before everyone jumps down my throat, remember that we are a republic, which is something very different, and in fact, many of the so-called democratic reforms that have occurred in our history are relatively recent. Specifically the direct election of Senators, which if one recalls the original constitution as ratified in 1789 called for the appointment of Senators by the legislatures of the several states. It wasn’t until the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, nearly 125 years later, that the system we have today, where individual citizens actually cast ballots for Senators came into existence. Furthermore, let us not forget that despite the colloquialism used by almost everyone, including myself, of "I voted for George Bush/John Kerry to be President" is technically false. You and I didn’t vote for Bush or Kerry, but rather for a slate of little known people called "electors" who cast ballots in the electoral college on behalf of the candidate who, in all states but Nebraska and Maine, receives the majority of the popular vote.
While America is certainly an easy example of situations where democracy does not follow from elections it is hardly the most compelling. History is replete with examples of "elected" officials who implement the furthest things from democracy that any of us could even imagine. Adolf Hitler, for example, was democratically "elected" Chancellor (or some such high ranking post) of Germany prior to the start of WWII. In fact, so what Mussolini in Italy, and Stalin in Russia, though I don’t really think that either of the latter examples would qualify as an "election." In fact, most of the former Eastern Bloc countries held "elections" when transferring power from one party member to another. Does anyone really think that the phrase "People’s Republic of X" was chosen by accident. One need look no further than the problems in the current Russian Republic to see what a democratically elected person (Putin) can do if given the power. My point is not to compare anything or anyone in the present with such terrible figures as Hitler or Stalin, but rather to show that the holding of an "election"does not a democracy make.
The second part of the equation, democracy = freedom and liberty, is a bit more difficult to critique because it is really a matter of degree. I would certainly agree that democracy or governments with strong democratic elements, provide the best opportunity for both freedom and liberty, but again I do not think that it is a guaranteed result. Democracy, if by that we mean the ability of the people to elect or otherwise choose their leaders, can and has led to totalitarianism, communism, theocracy and other regimes that most people would argue produce less freedom and liberty than do others. Besides, where is it decreed that democracy is a prerequisite for freedom and liberty? In many ways one could argue that it is the other way around, namely, freedom and liberty are prerequisites for democracy. Take the American and French Revolutions for example. Before either country could institute more democratic forms of government they had to win, through war, their freedom and liberty. Emphasis on the word they, meaning the American and French citizens had to win their freedom and liberty. This is the way to distinguish those situations from the modern ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the Iraqis and Afghani didn’t win their own freedom, but rather had it won for them, largely, though not exclusively, by American and other foreign troops. This is not to say that the modern examples won’t work, or that they shouldn’t have been attempted, but rather to argue that the comparisons with the historical revolutions that produced freedom and liberty don’t entirely hold up.
I guess my point is this, the holding of elections are not a panacea. They do not necessarily produce the effects that the Administration, and particularly the President seem to suggest they do. If, and that’s a big if, Iraq holds elections on Jan. 30 it does not mean that the operation has been a success. Of course, to be fair, failure to hold them Jan. 30 does not mean that the operation is a disaster either. Elections in Afghanistan, while a wonderful event that deserves much support and respect does not mean that we achieved success there either. Those determinations are still very, very far off into the future. Successive elections, while likely not to generate the same press coverage in the US media, in my opinion will be far more indicative of a successful American intervention. Economic liberty and prosperity in the form of stable infrastructure, growing domestic production, supply chains free from state involvement, and participation in the global economy with free and fair trade will be indicative of a successful operation. The same is true for Iraq. Safety and security are still the primary and secondary concerns. Free markets and stable infrastructures are still far from certainties in Iraq and the holding or not holding of an election will do little to change those things. Don’t read me wrong, there is no doubt that an election in Iraq will be a huge milestone and a momentous occasion, but it is not the be all and end all of the situation, nor as my previous discussion show, mean that the Middle East is somehow on its way to a peaceful resolution of a centuries old conflict. Furthermore, a "successful" election of pro-western, pro-modernization government by no means guarantees the continued election of such officials the next time around. Besides, at this point we’re not even sure that the Iraqi’s are going to elect pro-western leaders this time. If democracy means anything it means that anything is possible. Iraq could become a democratically elected Islamic state just as easily as it could become something else, at this point we know as much as anyone else and are only hopeful as to what the results will be.
Here’s where I get stuck between optimism and realism especially after listening to the President's speech. The equation that I have just spent the last few paragraphs refuting seems to be very popular, at least with the majority of Americans who re-elected the President who is expounding it and preaching it as though it were the new gospel. Of course, I know and understand that it hasn’t failed yet, nor have I offered any compelling reasons not to attempt to export the model to other nations. That being said, one has to admit that the equation is far from a certainty; thus, one must begin to wonder and question what the long term effects will be. They could be wonderful; freedom could really be "on the march" as the President proclaims, liberty could dominate parts of the world that arguably have never really known what it is like to choose their own destiny. On the other hand, the result could be an unmitigated disaster, in which democratic ideals are trampled by extreme religious fervor and irrational ideological hatred. It could be that in the name of providing freedom and liberty regimes put in place by American led forces actually repress or hinder the growth and development of millions of people all to show that our (western) choices are not their choices, and no one can dictate to them how to govern themselves or live their lives. Only time will tell, but given the stakes involved we had best be sure that the people we support are true to the cause, and dedicated to the outcome that the President spoke of yesterday and that Abraham Lincoln spoke of many years ago: "Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and , under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it." At this point, while I applaud and recognize the potential in the President’s goals, I think we might be better served to wait and judge the effects of our current attempts to export freedom, liberty, and democracy before we embark on new targets and new peoples who may or may not want or be ready for the ideals of our nation.