Global democratization: the unasked questions

Now that the democratization of Iraq has led to a constitution based on the totalitarian sharia law, perhaps President Bush and his advisors can better understand the truth enunciated by Norman Davies in his 1996 book, Europe, A History:

Hitler's democratic triumph exposed the true nature of democracy. Democracy has few values of its own: it is as good, or bad, as the principles of the people who operate it. In the hands of liberal and tolerant people, it will produce a liberal and tolerant government; in the hands of cannibals, a government of cannibals. In Germany of 1933—4 it produced a Nazi government because the prevailing culture of Germany's voters did not give priority to the exclusion of gangsters.

Twenty years ago, or even ten years ago when Davies's book was published, a significant number of thinking Americans would have granted the evident validity of these observations. A democratic government, in the sense of a government chosen by popular election and therefore reflecting the concerns and values of a particular people, will also naturally reflect the moral and cultural character of that people.

Since not all cultures and peoples are equally tolerant, and since the popularly expressed will of a people can be tyrannical and oppressive toward minorities, democracy, in the simple sense of government chosen by popular election, is not a sufficient ideal. Democracy must also be liberal, meaning that it protects individual rights, and constitutional, meaning that the power of the state is limited. But, as just said, not all cultures are equally amenable to liberal and constitutional principles, and therefore not all countries will be able to form a democracy in the true sense of liberal constitutional democracy. Certainly the notion that Islamic—based Arab cultures or tribal African cultures could have liberal democracy would have been looked at askance by the leading American intellectuals 15 or 25 years ago.

How was this body of commonsense and philosophical understandings lost? It was lost as a result of the policy President Bush adopted in response to the 9/11 attack. Speaking at West Point  in June 2002, the president claimed that there is

a single surviving model of human progress, based on non—negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property and free speech and equal justice and religious tolerance.

He expanded on these ideas in the introduction to his September 2002 National Security Strategy statement

People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children—male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom—loving people across the globe and across the ages.

With this stunning language, Bush turned a set of rights long established in America and for Americans into a requirement for all of humanity. It wasn't just that we regarded the enumerated rights as self—evidently true. It was that we regarded their practical establishment in the whole world—and particularly in the Muslim lands—as, first, a non—negotiable moral demand, and, second, as the only way to assure a world safe from terrorism. There was a specious logic in the latter argument that passed for great wisdom in some quarters. The past policy of cooperating with Arab and Muslim dictatorships hadn't prevented the growth of Muslim extremism. Therefore we had to try the opposite tack, of democratizing the Muslim countries.

In response to these assertions, obvious questions instantly arise. As desirable as democracy and freedom may be as a way of solving the problem of Muslim extremism and global terrorism, what if it's not possible to democratize Muslim countries? What if Islam and democracy—not just democracy in the sense of elections, but democracy in the larger sense of a society founded on liberal individual rights and limited government—are mutually exclusive? And if that were true, then global democratization—the universal establishment of liberal individual rights as the basis of every society, especially Muslim societies—is not practicable.

Yet among the very smart people who formed the new Bush initiative and then set about energetically promoting it, no one asked these obvious questions. There was an incredible failure of logic and imagination in assuming that simply because Muslim dictatorship had not worked, Muslim democratization must be a viable alternative. Worse, the democratist case was asserted in such a conclusory and sweeping tone as to suggest that no reasonable disagreement was possible. President Bush and Secretary of State Rice have repeatedly stated that to doubt the likelihood of Muslim democratization is "condescending" and even racist. As a result of these strong—arm tactics, the failure or refusal to ask rational questions about the Bush policy, which initially characterized the inner councils of the Bush administration itself, soon affected the whole society. Amazingly, no genuine public debate was ever held on the very radical and doubtful propositions upon which Bush's entire foreign policy was constructed.

The next question is why didn't the very smart people who were articulating the Bush policy ask the fundamental questions upon which its very achievability depended?

The simplest answer is that they were functioning in the realm of practical politics, not philosophy. In the aftermath of a horrendous attack on this country and the threat of far worse to come, they had worked out a new national security policy of global reach. To be acceptable politically, this policy needed a rationale that resonated with American principles.  Freedom—which in the global context of this policy meant global freedom—was the only game in town. The Bush supporters were part of a team, and this was what the team had decided on, and that was that.

Yet there were deeper reasons for the failure to ask fundamental questions. For one thing, if Muslims are so different from us that they can never be expected to construct societies based on liberal individual freedom, then there is no hope for a peaceful world unified around a shared belief in democracy. Irreconcilable differences of values between Muslims and Westerners, expressed in terms of political conflict and ultimately military conflict, must be perpetual, not only internationally, but, even more frighteningly, within the West itself, where millions of Middle Eastern Muslims have settled as immigrants. In the interests of maintaining both international and domestic peace, any thought of irreconcilable cultural and religious differences must be suppressed.

Beneath the fear of irresolvable conflict, there was, and is, a deeper, ideological reason for the suppression of discussion. If liberal individualism is rejected as a matter of principle by one—fifth of the world's population who follow one of the world's major religions, then the claim of liberal individualism to be the universal truth would lose its credibility. It would mean that there was something particular about Western culture, perhaps even about the peoples that had founded and created Western culture, that makes liberal individualism possible, which in turn would mean that religious, cultural, and ethnic differences matter politically.

The idea that such differences matter and need to be taken into account is, of course, the antithesis of the liberal universalist creed of contemporary conservatives, which says that all peoples are fundamentally the same and therefore equally ready for democracy and equally assimilable into America. And this is why none of the very smart people on the Bush team ever asked the obvious question whether there was anything about Islam that would make liberal democracy unacceptable to Muslims.

Lawrence Auster is the author of Erasing America: The Politics of the Borderless Nation. He offers a traditionalist conservative perspective at View from the Right.