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Belmont Club

Is Democracy Cool Again?

January 14th, 2011 - 3:38 pm

One of the more interesting Twitter commentaries on the upheaval in Tunisia says “this will be fascinating year for Arab world. And US is at risk of falling on wrong side of history. Time to get on the right side”. And by “right side” they mean the side of democracy. The warning comes none too soon.  Wired notes that the fall of the Tunisian regime comes precisely at the time when the Obama administration began a massive escalation in foreign aid to that country.

The Freedom Agenda is respectable again. After years of laughing at the idea that spreading democracy was America’s most useful foreign policy weapon and touting grand bargains with the worst regimes in world, even the New York Times sees in the departure of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali the startling idea that Arabs will not necessarily tolerate tyranny forever.

Make that tyranny and poverty. The unrest in Tunisia was as much about hardship as outrage. Despite the persistent belief to the contrary, centralized states do not always get the trains to run on time. Food prices have been rising the world over and Tunisia was no exception. Making and growing things, not reducing a “carbon footprint” and tootling around on rickety bicycles, may be what the world needs most. Oil at $100 a barrel reminds us that energy prices are the single biggest driver of food price volatility. The focus on Green Energy has not only pushed up the revenues of exiting oil producers to record levels by restricting new production, but has also increased food prices.

Windmills don’t do much to grow grain or move food across oceans. They don’t run trains or the trucks that deliver goods and services.  The world has been told for a long time that the greatest challenge facing the “planet” is Global Warming. Most people outside of  the Western environmental lobby knew that the biggest challenge has always been putting food on the table. But man doth not live by bread alone. He also liveth, as some would have it, through grand bargains with tyrants which alone could bring peace to the world.

It became fashionable to admire the Chinese government. Hezbollah was seen as a popular movement. When Iranian protesters were rioting in the streets of Tehran, Washington thought it best to keep quiet. Palestine, not Israel, was the wave of the future in the Middle East. Anyone who had a gun received automatic respect. As Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail put it only last month, the Western world seemed to have completely forgotten about anything except the need to keep on good terms with whatever government was in power:

When we deal with Sudan or Libya or China today, it is to make deals or to guarantee military support, not to demand elections in exchange for any of that. The more important goal is not democracy but stability. And, by paying large sums to sustain the rule of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, or by paying the regimes of Syria, Libya or even Sudan to help us, we are buying stability at the explicit price of democracy. After the huge effort and attention devoted to the 2005 and 2009 elections in Afghanistan, we virtually ignored this autumn’s parliamentary vote: Afghan stability now trumps democracy.

There had even been some relief that hard choices no longer had to be made. You dealt with the man on the throne and left judgments about right and wrong to them Bible clingers. Of course, things were never clear cut. Thomas Carothers, writing in Foreign Policy, notes that Washington has always been ambivalent towards spreading democracy even when it was openly espoused by George W. Bush:

The United States faces two contradictory imperatives: on the one hand, the fight against al Qaeda tempts Washington to put aside its democratic scruples and seek closer ties with autocracies throughout the Middle East and Asia. On the other hand, U.S. officials and policy experts have increasingly come to believe that it is precisely the lack of democracy in many of these countries that helps breed Islamic extremism.

Resolving this tension will be no easy task. So far, Bush and his foreign policy team have shown an incipient, albeit unsurprising, case of split personality: “Bush the realist” actively cultivates warm relations with “friendly tyrants” in many parts of the world, while “Bush the neo-Reaganite” makes ringing calls for a vigorous new democracy campaign in the Middle East.

After Bush was gone things promised to be so much simpler. But the world isn’t like that. Events in Tunisia are a reminder that there is a real reason why authoritarianism is bad. It leads to policies which ultimately engender unrest and ruination. Supporting such regimes may temporarily be necessary, but as rule they are bad in the long run. There is considerable irony in the fact that Tunisian street protests were inflamed by leaked State Department cables describing the shenanigans of Ben Ali’s family. Sooner or later the ends will not meet and the choice, when belated, is even more painful. These lessons should be borne in mind as the crisis in Lebanon unfolds. Hezbollah will not be dominant forever. Over the long term, freedom and prosperity win.

Don’t bet on the strongman forever. What doesn’t work cannot last indefinitely.


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