Wednesday, September 18, 2002

# Posted 11:56 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

YOU OUGHT TO MEET Michiel Visser. He is both a Dutchman as well as an avid supporter of the Bush administration, the Republican Party and the American conservative movement. Now you might ask, "How could someone raised with unfettered access to marijuana and sex-on-demand become a Republican?" I don't know. You'll have to ask Michiel. (And remember to pronounce his name as "Michael".)

I'm brining Mr. Vissier to your attention at this moment because his blog, the Visser View, has posted a direct challenge to a September 15th post in which I asserted that . His critique is founded on the distinction between democracy and liberal democracy, which is defined as a democratic form of government that protects individual rights in addition to having its citizens elect their representatives. With considerable justification, Michiel asks his readers to:
Just consider this: if countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt were democratic, i.e. if its citizens would vote for its politicans, under current conditions, would those countries be ruled by politicians more or less anti-Semitic, more or less anti-American, more or less belligerent? Is the Arab street really more enlightened than a dictator such as Mubarrak?

Without much effort, one can imagine a scenario in which a haphazard democratization process transforms the Middle East into a collection of unstable radical republics committed to anti-Western, anti-American agenda.

In order to respond to such a critique, I think one has to recognize the intellectual source of such arguments, namely Fareed Zakaria's 1997 article in Foreign Affairs entitled "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy." (This link will only take you to a summary of the article. The full text is reserved for subscribers. If you would like the full article, just send me an e-mail.) Zakaria argues that what differentiates democracies in the developing world from those in Europe and North America is that the latter represent the fulfillment of a centuries-long process which gradually established the rule of law as an inviolable principle of government. This much is hard to disagree with. The controversial conclusions which Zakaria draws from his summary of Western political history is that developing nations invite chaos when they adopt democratic forms of government. As such, Western idealists with an interest in promoting democracy abroad ought to support Third World dictators who can provide the stability needed to establish the institutions on which liberal democracy rests.

Zakaria's belief that developing nations cannot support functioning democratic governments rests not just on the self-evident absence of a Western legal tradition, but also on the controversial assertion that anti-democratic elements in the culture of developing nations prevent their population from having the sincere commitment to democracy on which its existence depends. This assertion, unsurprisinlgy, has provoked considerable criticism. As the recent history of Chile, El Salvador, Cambodia, South Korea and the Philippines has shown, even those peoples whose cultural heritage is not favorable to democracy are often willing to overthrow dictatorships and then remain committed to democratic reform. At the moment, no serious scholar of development and democratization would assert that culture is the primary (or even a primary) determinant of a democratic government's viability.

An understanding of Zakaria's perspective on culture is extremely important to responding to Vissier's argument because he adopts Zakaria's perspective explicitly, writing that "democracy in and of itself is just a form of government. It means power for the people. Its quality thus depends on the quality of its people. That in turn brings us to the culture and level of development of the potential voters in the Middle East." From there, Vissier goes on to reject the possibility of democratization in the Middle East.

One might argue, of course, that in the Middle East the rise of fundamentalist Islam will ensure that culture/religion becomes the primary determinant of democracy's success even if it was not so in Latin America or East Asia. The lack of democratic precedents in the Middle East makes it hard to refute such an argument. However, the example of Iran provides an interesting perspective on such questions. In the immediate aftermath of the 1979 revolution, the Iranian republic seemed fully committed to the Ayatollah Khomeini's anti-Western radicalism. Yet with the passage of time, it is becoming increasingly evident that Iranians resent the impositions on their personal and political freedoms imposed by their fundamentalist government.

The fact that Iranians are willing to embrace Western democratic ideals is particularly signficant since Iran had been so brutally manipulated by the West in the decades before the revolution. Yet even this heritage has not prevented its people from embracing Western ideals. Imagine then what might happen in countries that have had better relations with the West. First of all, Afghans' appreciation of the United States' role in liberating them from the Taliban dictatorship suggests that if the Bush administration forcefully confronts the local warlords who are holding back the democratization process, then the people will support it as well. The potential for establishing real democracy in Palestine is less evident. Nonetheless, it seems that only Arafat's brutality and the US-Israeli willingness to look the other way has prevented the PLA from becoming more democratic than it is. In fact, the fate of democracy throughout the Middle East may depend on the willingness of the United States to actively support it. While the people may want it, only American pressure can overcome the elites' effort to preserve their own power.

On a final note, I think it is important to point out that a potential democratization of the Middle East will be gradual. Rather than resulting in the sudden creation of numerous radical fundamentalist republics, it is more likely that democracy will first establish itself in a limited number of states before spreading to their neighbors. If any given state becomes excessively radical or belligerent, the United States will have the means to confront both diplomatically and military. Thus, the gradual democratization of the Middle East should not disrupt the war on terrorism.

Thanks again to Michiel for raising this important issue. I look forward to his response.
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