Why Democracy Matters

There’s an interesting discussion in The Corner at National Review Online about whether we should be less “liberal” (in the classical sense) in our conduct of the war in Iraq. Rich Lowry first observes that this isn’t a liberal war any more. Andrew McCarthy than argues that the sinking approval for the war is because we have no long-term plan to deal with our enemies.

However, I find Jonah Goldberg’s arguments the most compelling. His fourth argument is the vital one here:

The root causes crowd isn’t entirely off base. The Arab world is a riot of dysfunction. One of the main arguments our enemies use against us is that America doesn’t really care about democracy, we just want to guarantee the flow of oil. Does anyone doubt that America’s acquiescence to a tyrannical regime in post-war Iraq would result in anything but a propaganda coup for these people? Moreover, another tyranny in Iraq would ultimately serve as a breeding ground for precisely the forces we’re at war with. That is assuming Iraq doesn’t simply become the seat of the new al Qaeda caliphate, in which case it won’t merely be a breeding ground for terror it will be a terror state par excellence. In short, you can’t beat something with nothing. They’re something is sharia and post-mortem virgins. Our something must be freedom.

That’s the big issue here, and the one that the President understands, but has never conveyed. The root cause of terrorism is the cultural failure of the Middle East. The UN’s Human Development Report has indicated a widespread failure of Arab states to adapt to the modern world. It is this failure of modernization that motives much of the terrorist violence in the region. The people of places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and Iran are fundamentally disconnected from any control over the lives. The state controls everything, and the only measure of power they have comes from religion — the one thing greater than the state.

Even if we secure Iraq, we still have to use soft power to guide its democratic development. The problem is that we have the wrong idea of what democracy is: we think it’s institutions when it is based upon a strong civil society. If we could magically replace the Iranian government with a perfectly formed democracy, Iran would not last long as a democratic state, because they have seen decades of oppression which has gutted Iranian civil society. Indeed, the reason why Iraq is a mess right now is because we concentrated on forming democratic institutions without laying the groundwork of civil society.

The key to defusing the suicide bomber culture isn’t to defeat it militarily — unless the US wants to wage the kind of total war against the entire Muslim world that would involve the massive destruction of life and property, a solely military solution isn’t realistic. We can kill and degrade the capacity of terrorist groups, but that won’t stop them over the long haul. We have to deprive them of the ideological oxygen that feeds them.

Goldberg is right — they have shari’a and the promise of 72 virgins. We have to offer a compelling alternative. The realpolitik solution to Iraq would be to set up a local strongman friendly to our interests — except the realpolitik solution is precisely the wrong one. We already did that when we assassinated Mossadegh in Iran and replaced him with the Shah — and look at how well that turned out for us. Our compelling alternative is to replace the autocratic and undemocratic regimes in the Middle East with regimes that respect human rights and offer democracy. Let’s face it, 72 virgins in the afterlife is compelling to a typical teenager living in an Arab state — but it’s nothing compared to the freedom to vote, to have a life, to find a girl in the here and now, and to know that you live in a state where you have the opportunity to be someone.

We on the right ignore the fact that Muslims aren’t the enemy. We have to start thinking like them to understand this war — and if you lived in a society in which you had no opportunities, you had almost no chance of getting married or even going on a date without paying a substantial dowry, you had no job, and no prospects for the future, wouldn’t you be more likely to blow yourself up if you honestly thought it meant a Paradise of unending wealth and 72 nubile virgins? We’re fortunate enough to live in a world where such oppression doesn’t touch us. They don’t. Unless we’re willing to change the circumstances that generates such feelings, we have either the choice of facing a world in which groups like al-Qaeda are a constant threat or facing a massive conflict of civilizations that we will win — at such a grave human and economic cost as to be virtually unthinkable.

Democracy matters. It not only matters, but it is the key to this war.

While it’s perfectly understandable that some on the right should be “to hell with them hawks,” that position isn’t tenable for us. We can’t just pretend that the problems of the Arab world don’t effect us — they do, and not just because we get a good amount of our oil from those places. We can’t build a wall around our country and be safe — nor should we want to.

Both the “to hell with them hawks” and the “withdraw now” left have similar positions: that we should not bother to engage with such a dysfunctional region. The problem with that temptation is that we have little choice: our world has grown much smaller in the last few decades, and even a place like faraway and dirt-poor Afghanistan can have profound impacts on our national security — whether we like it or not.

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