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Monday, October 21, 2002 - 10:29 PM Permanent link for Middle East:  Liberal Society vs. Liberal Democracy
Middle East: Liberal Society vs. Liberal Democracy

A current, burning political development question is "which comes first, a liberal democracy or a liberal society?"

"Missionizing" right and left wingers in the US see "democracy" as an end in and of itself.   Hence they tend to believe that a democracy will spawn a liberal society.  Or perhaps more accurately, these folks believe that a liberal democracy and liberal society are one and the same.  

Increasingly, many are beginning to credibly argue that this perspective doesn't incorporate an understanding of the underlying social structures that make democracy thrive.   The result, in many developmental situations is often an Illiberal Democracy

In developmental econ circles, I'm particularly drawn to the example provided by Hernando De Soto (and later Brink Lindsey).   They argue that many Westerners don't adequately understand the social groundwork that allowed Capitalism to flourish in our world.  We proselytize to developing nations that they need to create stock markets, open up exchange rates, and open markets to imports (all of which are independently Good Things!).  

However, we fail to recognize that the types of institutions that directly affect the quality of life of the vast majority of the (poor) citizens of these nations are the basics like enforceable property law, trustworthy courts and police, etc.   The primacy of open markets and exchange rates as indicators of economic progress are, in effect, western-imposed ideological cargo-cults which are actually an outcome rather than source of liberalism.

Our failure to advocate these policies is NOT out of malice but rather because they are such a staple of our lives that we take them for granted and they disappear into the background.  Questions about exchange rates and the latest SEC policy have occupied our foreground processing & academic journals for the past 50-100 years.  Consequently we have a type of myopia about what makes our society successful.   The result is that we, often dangerously, advocate a type of market transition that not only lacks the legs to succeed but sows its own seeds of failure and resentment.

SO, the core question is -- do we risk seeing a similar backlash in an unmitigated pursuit of democracy in the Middle East?   Will democracy be the next cargo cult?  If sacred cow of Capitalism must be bestowed in a somewhat piecemeal fashion, then perhaps Democracy must be too?

Parapundit believes the answer is YES.  He quotes Martin Kramer's blog:

Frankly, my eyes glaze over when I hear Condoleezza Rice, James Woolsey, and Tom Friedman wax eloquent on the coming "march of democracy" in the Arab world. (Woolsey to James Fallows in the current issue of The Atlantic: "This could be a golden opportunity to begin to change the face of the Arab world. Just as what we did in Germany changed the face of Central and Eastern Europe, here we have got a golden chance.") As a survivor of the Middle East peace process, which, we were told, would transform Israel, "Palestine," and Jordan into a Benelux, I smell snake oil. Of all the rationales for war, this one is the least substantial and the most ideological, and those who make it cast doubt on whether they fully understand the regional context in which an Iraq war might be fought.

Continuing Parapundit's quote of Martin Kramer, he talks about some of the social/cultural barriers precluding democracy:

Not only are liberal democratic attitudes toward pluralism, majority rule and equality before the law mostly absent from the Arab world, that world counterposes entrenched attitudes that are their antitheses: concepts of monadic political authority, consensus forms of decision-making and natural social hierarchy.

Hosni Mubarak of Egypt reportedly once told a US diplomat:  "You want free elections in Egypt?   There will be only 1.   And they will vote in the Islamicists"

Continuing on with Martin Kramer:

The basic building blocks are attitudes—above all, a tolerance of political differences, indeed even a celebration of political differences, debated openly and decided freely.

Hence, the dearth of what is called civil society. Civil society is that panoply of associations that are greater than individual, family, clan, and tribe. These associations organize people around shared ideas and interests; democratic societies are replete with thousands upon thousands of such associations, from the PTA to the PAC.

The fault here, is both at the individual and the national level.  Autocratic governments,  see almost any non-sanctioned Assembly of individuals -- students, teachers, trade unions, professional associations, book clubs, etc. -- as a potential threat to their power.  In those countries, the leader of the shipbuilder's union may actually have national political ambition.   

Correspondingly, individuals within these societies often see org leadership roles translating (eventually) into national political power which also eventually translates into monetary power.   As a result in a despotic / nepotic / all-around corrupt system, it is rare for an organization of any stripe to truly be "non-profit

What is necessary to provide the groundwork for Democracy in these regions is not just for governments to back off from preventing Assemblage but also, for individuals to truly view large classes of assemblies as necessary structures in and of themselves rather than stepping stones to national office.   The PTA president must have his/her "ambition" fulfilled by running an efficient PTA.  

This is critical for establishing federation of power outside of the central government and for establishing the precedent for sharing across competitive organizations.  In other words, at the local level democracy requires a plurality of visions for how to run the PTA which are completely divorced from national concerns.  The social fabric needs to be comfortable with the corporate manager being a simple individual contributor at the PTA.   And conversely, the corporate individual contributor chairing the PTA where his VP or the town mayor is simply a member.

There are however, a few stirrings for true, liberal democratic reform, within the region.   Most recently, Thomas Friedman writes in the NYT:

The Arab and Muslim worlds today are largely dominated by autocratic regimes. If you want to know what it would look like for them to move from autocracy to democracy, check out Iran. In many countries it will involve an Iranian-like mixture of theocracy and democracy, in which the Islamists initially win power by the ballot box, but then can't deliver the jobs and rising living standards that their young people desire, so they come under popular pressure and can only hold on to power by force.

But eventually they will lose, because the young generation in Iran today knows two things: (1) They've had enough democracy to know they want more of it. (2) They've had enough theocracy crammed down their throats to know they want less of it. Eventually, they will force a new balance in Iran, involving real democracy and an honored place for Islam, but not an imposed one.

My personal infatuation with Iran as the locus of Middle East cultural dynamism is another favorite blogging topic -- here, here, and here.

Friedman continues:

But why is it taking so long? Why isn't Iran like Poland or Hungary after the fall of the Berlin Wall? And why might Iraq not be like them after the fall of Saddam? The answer is spelled O-I-L.

The transition from autocracy to real democracy in Iran is dragged out much longer than in Europe for many reasons, but the most important is because the hard-line mullahs control Iran's oil wealth. What that means is that they have a pool of money that they can use to monopolize all the instruments of coercion — the army, police and intelligence services. And their pool of money is not dependent on their opening Iran's economy or political system or being truly responsive to their people's aspirations.

Friedman then goes a bit off the deep end by arguing that (part of) the real solution is weening ourselves off of Oil and transitioning to other fuels.   Through the magic of the Blogosphere, I'll simply cross reference an article from Steven Den Beste and include the following conclusion:

Let's be clear. It's not that these things [weening off of oil] can't be done. It's that they can't be done to a sufficient extent to have any practical political effect on our relations with the Arabs, enough to affect the outcome of this war.

So... what's the answer?   I'm not sure there is just one.   This calls for a form of "cultural imperialism" across several fronts touching down to the lowest individual level (e.g. the PTA parent).  There are several options none of which are easy / fun / immediately gratifying.  In other words, all of 'em are multi-year plans & the idiotarians get to start complaining about the policy's ineffectiveness on year 1.

Den Beste, in his usual style, has a long article defending this notion here

One thing I am sure of is that if the Message conveyed by Iran "new revolutionary" will be far more palpable to the Arab Street than if the Message comes from the Great Satan.  Fareed Zakaria notes:

...Voters have gotten used to listening to fiery fundamentalists promising purity and delivering nothing. And yet over half a century of intermittent elections in Pakistan, the fundamentalists never received more than 5 percent of the national vote. This month they got nearly 25 percent.

...I asked a Pakistani politician who took part in this election for an explanation. “America became a huge issue in the election,” he said. “The fundamentalists were voted in to protest Musharraf’s alliance with America.

Fareed concludes by outlining the scope of required action and thinking.   Communism too, required a cultural imperialism -- it took several generations of individuals before the tipping point of "disbelief in the promise" was finally reached in the general population:

During the cold war, the United States had two approaches to confronting Soviet communism, military and political. The first involved nuclear weapons, proxy wars and covert action. The second was a concerted effort to build alliances with countries that had a common cause, foster trade and provide aid to Third World countries that eschewed communism. America built dams, funded magazines and created the Peace Corps all as part of this effort.

And, giving Friedman some credit, this time around, the social battle may be even more difficult.  As he notes, unlike communism which was economically crushed as well as politically crushed, Oil will still be used to prop up the various domestic economies.   Simultaneously, the rest of the world surely needs its oil supplies from the region.

Secondarily, Culture / Religion / Values are far more difficult to define "us" vs. "them" boundaries.  As hard as it was for Reagan to call the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire" (and if you lived back then you will remember the flack he got for it), it's far more difficult to issue the "call to arms" this time around when the philosophical lines aren't quite as cut & dry.      

Within the West, our pluralism often means that there is much ambiguity amongst ourselves about what our Societies, Governments, and Economies are actually built on.   It's incredibly difficult to "preach" while being so outwardly schizo and even having members actively attacking these civilizational foundations. 

There's gonna be a long ride before we make it to the End of History.

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