Saturday, September 02, 2006

Give me that Westernizing Strongman?

I got into a debate about democracy in the greater Middle East (many geography buffs would object to my including Afghanistan in the Middle East instead of Central Asia) with Mister Ghost, a co-host of Iraqi Blogger's Central and with Paul Edwards, host of Anti-Subjugator. They both challenged me with their views (which are not identical), so I thought I would summarize my views on why the United States is correct in preferring democracy over a Westernizing strongman in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Democracy: Everyone's second favorite choice

Let me start by admitting that democracy isn't my favorite regime. I prefer a limited role for government in the economy and politicians always have a hard time delivering on this agenda. Occasionally I get tired of hoping that the right politicians will get elected and enact all of my pet causes into law. A free-enterprising strongman superficially might seem like the solution.

But then there are some people I know for whom the pro-life/anti-abortion issue means almost everything. Rather than wait for another round of election returns hoping for a pro-life Congress, President and federal courts, they might want to cut corners and establish a pro-life strongman. And then there are the environmentalist people who have become impatient waiting for tougher fuel efficiency regulations on cars and SUVs. They fear global warming. So, they want a green strongman.

If we all tried to enact our political agendas by setting up a strongman who agrees with us, we would have one messy civil war. In fact, that's exactly what America had when many Southern planters were more committed to their investment in African-American slaves than they were to democracy as a principle. Afghanistan Iraq are currently suffering from low-level civil wars because certain factions are more committed to their political agendas than towards democracy.

In a democracy we do not have to agree that the elected government always makes wise or even moral choices when it comes to enacting and enforcing law. It simply means that people who disagree on policy issues settle them in the court of public opinion instead of civil war.

I can name that strongman in ......

The strongman that people think of most often is Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. But there is a reason why he is often the only example of a westernizing dictator mentioned. No other Middle Eastern dictator was truly successful in westernizing his country while staying in power. The Shah of Iran did westernize Iran before he was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic revolution. Thus, the largest obstacle to setting up a westernizing strongman in the Middle East is that he has to rule harshly enough to remain in power, lightly enough to allow freedom to take root. It's a tightrope that is nearly impossible to walk.

Democracy's secret weapon: Legitimacy

If maintaining freedom while enforcing law and order are so difficult for a dictator to do simultaneously, how do democracies do it? It's called "legitimacy." Simply by getting elected a politician has demonstrated that his views are reasonably representative of his constituents. So, the number of people likely to disobey the law because they disagree with it is already reduced to some extent because the laws reflect (however imperfectly) the attitudes of preferences of the people. In addition, when people have an opportunity to participate in the making of law (by voting or voicing their opinions or holding elective office) they believe they have a stake in the democratic system. Thus, those citizens, policemen, judges and prosecutors are who disagree with the law and the politicians holding office are more likely to be cooperative.

The pro-lifer who doesn't bomb an abortion clinic, the environmentalist who doesn't vandalize SUVs, the guy who prefer lower taxes who doesn't scheme to blow up an IRS office, they are the people who keep a democracy from descending into civil war. In a dictatorship these people described above have no electoral contest to which to look forward.


President Bush presents his policy of supporting democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan as the harder choice but one that is true to American values. This is seems to be true. But when America topples a dictatorship, planting a democratic regime in its place is actually a pragmatic choice and the one that is most likely to lead to stability. Where stability was previously purchased by brute force in Afghanistan (under the Soviet puppet dictator and later the Taliban) and Iraq (under the Saddam Hussein regime), these nations are currently attempting to obtain stability through the legitimacy of the democratic process.