Democracy in the Arab World
I've been reading a number of articles that discuss Bush's speech demanding that Palestinians vote for their own government. Most of these articles seem to assume (or argue) that this is based on a simplistic view of democracy, one that believes that any democratic nation will automatically choose a peace-loving, Western-friendly regime. Writers point to that speech in order to mock the simple-minded buffoon who believes that votes solve everything. I think that's a straw man, and a shallow perception of the possible consequences of such an action.
Whether you believe Bush is a "simple-minded buffoon" or not, the U.S. foreign policy establishment is likely to understand that free votes do not always usher in golden ages of international love and tenderness. Hitler ascended to power through a democratic vote; so did Arafat (though both rulers "elected" to stay in power long after their publically mandated term of service was over). Clearly a population steeped in distrust and even hatred of Western civilization, or one which actually supported a fundamentalist Islamic regime would elect officials who would support and establish such a regime; that's the definition of democracy.
However, as I was reading this Fox News piece on the speech, this quote helped crystallize something I'd been thinking about since the speech itself:
Twenty years ago this summer, President Reagan delivered a spectacular speech on how, eventually, the Cold War would not be decided by "bombs and rockets, but a test of wills and ideas." In that now-famous Westminster Speech, Reagan pledged to "foster the infrastructure of democracy ? the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities ? which allows a people to choose their own way."
Nobody rational expects a vote in Palestine (or any Arabic nation) to turn the Arab pumpkin into a Western coach. On the other hand, if the last fifty years have taught the Western world anything, it is that the "test of wills and ideas" is generally favorable to democracy and capitalism. Short term solutions don't work; you can't expect sweeping change -- as the U.S. has often tried to engender in nation after nation -- sweeping change which can be swept away just as quickly by a military junta or a fundamentalist revolution. Instead, you get the war of ideas started, you get the opponent injected into the marketplace of ideas. Then you let those ideas fight their own battles. Eventually, oppressive regimes cannot maintain themselves any more, and they crumble. It won't be fast, and it won't be cheap; it won't be a solution that gets politicians reelected. But it will work.
If you can get opposing regimes to allow free elections, and free speech, and free press, you've laid all the groundwork you really need. It's not assault rifles, UAVs, or tanks that will win this kind of war; the war has to be fought by the Arab peoples, in their own hearts and minds.
You cannot force people to stop hating you. But if you can give them a taste of freedom, the freedom to exercise their own decisions, to speak and think and act as they please instead of as their culture, when they see that their goverment and their culture (and their democracy) is a product of who they are and what they want, instead of one imposed by other people's values (democratic, religious, whatever), then I think you will see that people learn to respect freedom and peace as much as any Western civilization does today. Sneak in the freedom, a little at a time and "under the radar" of the regime in power, and let that do the work of regime changing for you.
Because of this, I think that "regime change" in Iraq (and any other places the U.S. chooses to act) will fail at its stated goals. Oh, doubtless the regime will "change" -- you'll have some other petty tyrant in control, perhaps after a civil war, a coup, or even after fair elections. But as a change imposed from outside, it won't have the same power that a popular demand for revolution does. I think that the Internet will have more of an effect on true regime change in Arab countries than military action will. To the extent that we are able to encourage freedom in Arab countries, that is precisely the extent to which we will see a growth in democracy and stability.
Unfortunately, some military action in Iraq, at least, is probably unavoidable (by which I mean necessary). I don't doubt that Saddam has continued his activities in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, or that his regime is heavily involved in terrorist activities in general. A military disruption of those various activities is the only way to affect them in the short term; while not a long term solution, invading Iraq and neutering the Republican Guard while blowing up weapons dumps and research stations will almost certainly be worthwhile.
Conversely, I would complement military actions with economic and social actions against those regimes. End sanctions. End embargoes. Throw open the gates of trade. Tell countries, We will open our markets to you. Come and trade with us.
Castro clings to power in Cuba, despite decades-long sanctions and trade embargoes. Bitterly, obviously helpless sanctions and embargoes. I said above that the best weapon (perhaps the only weapon) against oppressive regimes is the free flow of ideas. Embargoes and sanctions impede the flow; they help the regime maintain the ideological (and often economic) stranglehold on their countries that keeps them in power. Arabic regimes don't want their subjects buying American products, reading American books, talking, acting, or thinking like Americans: in the last thousand years, the entire Arabic world has translated fewer books than Spain will translate this year alone. Arabic art of all kinds is censored and pressured to conform to the ideology of the regime in power. Limiting the contact they have with us only helps the regime accomplish that.
At the same time, isolation gives the regime a nearly foolproof method of deflecting criticism: How can we help it, when the Americans won't sell us their products? Saddam has used these tactics quite effectively; so has Castro (who recently prohibited the sale of computers to private citizens in Cuba; the official reason was the U.S. embargo, but the more likely explanation is the rise of independent journalism in Cuba). The shortages caused by sanctions merely mean the only resources to be distributed are the ones already in the country, which are of course tightly controlled by the government. Even the "exceptions" to the sanctions (such as oil-for-food or outright aid) aggravate the situation, because in nearly every case the government is given the authority to distribute that as well. This is how we can be sending tons of food to North Korea, yet millions of people are starving and the government is still firmly in power. I'm not suggesting we stop sending food; I'm suggesting we start sending everything else. Invade with a fleet of cargo ships; assault the countryside with trucks carrying bread. Send with them American and British and Australian and German merchants; allow the mixture to brew for a while, and the regime will slowly but surely begin losing its power.
The bottom line is that negotiating won't work. You can't negotiate with a people, only with a government, and it's the people whose minds we have to change in order to win this war. Military action never wins over the population; at best, it removes the opposing government from the contest so that you can work with the population in peace. The real work has to be done by ideas, not by treaties, accords, or rifles.