Wednesday, May 04, 2005

# Posted 9:08 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

TOUCHE! The Washington Monthly is hosting a debate about whether or not Bush and the invasion of Iraq deserve any credit for the democratic surge in the Middle East. Blogging in the affirmative is Dan Drezner. Blogging in the negative is Marc Lynch, with occasional commentary from host-man Kevin Drum.

Marc's initial post makes the valid, perhaps even self-evident point that progress in Lebanon and Egypt depended intimately on local conditions and local actors. Of course, Marc says, the invasion of Iraq slightly altered those conditions and encouraged those actors.

But if football is a game of inches, then democracy promotion is a game of slightlies. If the protesters in Lebanon were a little less confident of American support or if the Syrians were a little less concerned about all those GI's next door, might the outcome have been different? Of course, but we have absolutely no way of knowing that for sure.

So what to think in the face of uncertainty? Marc's basic argument is that without definitive evidence on Bush's behalf, there's no reason to give him any credit. In response, Dan makes the very sensisble observation that the stunning success of the Iraqi election in spite of an extremely violent effort to prevent it from taking place fundamentally changed the way that Arabs think about the prospects for democratic reform in the Middle East.

OK, but how does that kind of broad-gauge perception contribute to specific instances of reform, as in Lebanon and Egypt? Frankly, it's quite hard to say. And when I say "quite hard" I mean basically impossible. I'm writing a doctoral dissertation on democracy promotion and I can't think of any substantive research that looks at how political outcomes in one country relate to its citizens' perceptions of events in another. (Not that I really trust political scientists' opinions about anything, but you get my drift.)

Now, in contrast to our relative ignorance about "democratic dominoes" and "demonstration effects", I think we know a reasonable amount about who gets to take credit when good things happen. Throughout his campaign, Bush kept insisting that there could be a democratic revolution in the Middle East. Then he devoted his entire inaugural address to that subject.

In contrast, John Kerry kept talking about how we shouldn't be closing firehouses in Ohio while opening them in Baghdad. For their part, the center-left punditocracy kept projecting a deeper quagmire in Iraq while dismissing the democratic domino theory as a neo-con fantasy.

In other words, the differences between Bush and his critics were anything but subtle. Both sides had placed their bets on very different sets of outcomes. Moreover, Bush placed his bets on a set of outcomes with very, very long odds. And because Bush gambled his reputation on something so uncertain and so unusual, he will get to take credit for it, regardless of whether or not he got lucky.
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