It's the Democracy, Stupid
November 20, 2001 10:58 AM   Subscribe

It's the Democracy, Stupid Quick hit from Middle East expert Thomas Friedman on why democracy matters in the Middle East, and by extension why democracy-building is one of the US's best weapons there. Starts out with a news quiz: "Name the second-largest Muslim community in the world. Iran? Wrong. Pakistan? Wrong. Saudi Arabia? Wrong." (NYT link)
posted by cell divide (20 comments total)
Funny, I read this morning that the US is considering a weak central goverment for Afghanistan based on it's history.
We've certainly seen lots of weak central governments gone bad, but very few democracies go bad, but we would really be accused then of nation building...
posted by aacheson at 11:28 AM on November 20, 2001

Hmm, gee, maybe it was not such a good idea to support all these brutal, uncontrollable dictators after all. Maybe (just maybe) selling weapons to unstable countries doesn't make them more peaceful! Damn, reality is always so counter-intuitive!
posted by Eloquence at 11:31 AM on November 20, 2001

Yea for Democracy! and in India many hindus considered non-touchables are converting to Buddhism so they can be toucables. Sort of like Democrat/liberals converting to GOP so they won't be looked down upon as the scum of the earth.
posted by Postroad at 11:38 AM on November 20, 2001

Eloquence: Friedman wasn't *specifically* addressing U.S. support of anyone per se, but writing about India and Bangladesh. He did, however, address U.S. support of dicatators:

In other words, for all the talk about Islam and Islamic rage, the real issue is: Islam in what context? Where Islam is imbedded in authoritarian societies it tends to become the vehicle of angry protest, because religion and the mosque are the only places people can organize against autocratic leaders. And when those leaders are seen as being propped up by America, America also becomes the target of Muslim rage.

Get that? What a cynic. You obviously didn't bother to read the article.
posted by raysmj at 11:41 AM on November 20, 2001

The U.S. government has little interest in promoting a democracy in the middle east. That's no good for US oil interests, who would much prefer an old crooked king who will happily share the spoils with US oil companies. A democratic country might not go along with Exxon's wishes.
posted by ottomatik at 11:53 AM on November 20, 2001

Sort of like Democrat/liberals converting to GOP so they won't be looked down upon as the scum of the earth.

Nice troll post.
posted by Rastafari at 11:56 AM on November 20, 2001

Not just democracy, but secular democracy. The secular nature of India's constitutional democracy wasn't emphasized enough in the article, though the author did use the word "pluralistic," which, I guess, is his way of saying "secular."

I am in full agreement. If we're going to do any nation-building, then by all means we should build a secular democracy. Construction of a theocracy would be idiotic, and contrary to American values.
posted by yesster at 12:32 PM on November 20, 2001

I posted this in the older thread where raysmj posted this same article:

From The National Review:
Bangladesh is the second-largest Muslim democracy. As a democratic people in the Islamic world, the Bangladeshis show that Islam, democracy, and moderation can coexist.

. . . .

The last free and fair elections, on October 1, 2001, stood as a sign opposing fanatical regimes and boasted a 75 percent voter turnout. That 52 percent of those voters were women is a very tangible rejection of the influence of the mullahs in that country's rural areas.
The article goes on to say that Bangladesh has been a "staunch ally" of America, yet the Bush administration has blocked its "fair access to U.S. markets" by giving "72 countries in Africa and the Caribbean a 20 to 22 percent price advantage over Bangladesh by allowing them duty-free access to the U.S. market." Brown makes a great case: "Democratic institutions cannot survive such fragile economic realities on a prayer."
posted by tamim at 12:35 PM on November 20, 2001

raysmj: Thanks for not understanding my post.
posted by Eloquence at 1:53 PM on November 20, 2001

All due respect, aacheson, Eloquence, ottomatik, etc. but the US is not necessarily the only reason that these governments are authoritarian. While I believe we should do what we can, in the end the US has national interests to which it must be loyal, and in the long run exposure to market economies has had the most success in opening up political freedom.

I don't think it's necessarily useful to look at a simplistic "authoritarian" definition, either. Musharraf's military dictatorship has arguably been more liberal in terms of the government's role in building and securing a secular society than its democratically-elected (but allegedly corrupt, and Islamist-influenced) predecessor. Algeria rushed to democratic elections, faced an Islamist takeover, and smashed it with a return to dictatorship; and I'd be hard pressed to say, from a Western perspective, which is worse. My faith in the armor of simple, unadorned democracy has been undermined.
posted by dhartung at 3:31 PM on November 20, 2001

The thing is that democracy doesn't, and can't, just mean holding elections. It's more than that. It must include an independent bureaucracy, for one thing, and must also include features such as decision-making transparency, among other things.

Problem is, many Western democracies seem to be trying to move away from these sorts of principles in important ways. Look at the MS deal - there's wide speculation that they have done a deal with the Executive branch in the US that made the deal possible. If that's true, it's arguably anti-democratic. And that from one of the key examples of democracy in the world. Similar things happen all over, and to my mind (with the abstraction of decisionmaking power over many issues to opaque international groups like the WTO).

I and others have been saying ever since 9/11 that what the world needs to combat this is a fundamental recommitment to democratic principles all the way around. That means strengthening things like judicial oversight, not wiping it away with policies like Bush's executive privilege to order military trials. It means that if "wartime" policies must be enacted (doubtful at best), they should be strictly sunset-claused all the way down the line.

We, in the West, must balance on a thin knife-edge: we mustn't blame ourselves for the horrors of such terrorism while taking away the convenient arguments of those who would blame the victims. Might does not make right. Rigid adherence to time-honored principles of democracy and freedom makes right - with no exceptions.
posted by mikel at 3:45 PM on November 20, 2001

We've certainly seen lots of weak central governments gone bad, but very few democracies go bad

What? Many democracies have gone bad, often ending in a military coup. Democracies don't seem to go bad often once they're entrenched, but that can take generations. It may seem that democracies don't go bad because most Western democracies have been fairly stable in our lifetimes, but those are just several datapoints in a constellation.

Some weak central governments don't go bad. Switzerland's highly autonomous cantons appear to me an excellent model for Afghanistan, and perhaps other places torn by violent regional conflicts.

There's lots to argue about in the rambling Was Democracy Just a Moment? by Robert Kaplan from the December 1997 Atlantic Magazine, but it's pretty thought provoking, much apropos to importing democracy into a country with no liberal culture.

posted by mlinksva at 5:07 PM on November 20, 2001

A democratic country might not go along with Exxon's wishes.

What, you seriously think a democratic Middle Eastern country would not want to sell the oil they produce to the highest bidder, just like a dictator or monarch would?
posted by kindall at 6:08 PM on November 20, 2001

There's more to it than selling oil to the highest bidder. It's easy to cut a quick and dirty deal with a despot, more difficult to forge an fair deal with a democracy.
posted by ottomatik at 7:16 PM on November 20, 2001

Yea for Democracy! and in India many hindus considered non-touchables are converting to Buddhism so they can be toucables.

Sorry for going slightly OT, but: Postroad, do you have a source for this? I'd like to know more. It was my understanding that there were no Buddhists in India at all.
posted by rodii at 7:29 PM on November 20, 2001

Here you go, rodii, although I'm not Postroad. There have long been Buddhists in India, I believe. The "none" is way off base, though. Even if there weren't any Indian citizens who are Buddhists, there would always have been the Tibetan exile community.
posted by raysmj at 8:02 PM on November 20, 2001

It's easy to cut a quick and dirty deal with a despot . . .

And that will be the story of the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia and their mineral rights.
posted by holgate at 8:28 PM on November 20, 2001

Thanks, Ray. That's a big "duh" from me. I meant, that the indigenous Buddhist traditions have died out in India (or so I thought).
posted by rodii at 9:12 PM on November 20, 2001

(And to update, a good selection of dissenting views on Friedman's piece, which was reprinted in the Graun this weekend. And they're pretty forceful ones, too: "When Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead by a religious fanatic in the name of a Hindu-only India, the Indian Muslim identity died with him.")
posted by holgate at 6:42 AM on November 26, 2001

Interesting letter to the NYT this morning too: "[Friedman's explanation] overlooks the fact that India's 120 million Muslims are surrounded by mor than 800 million Hindus--some of whom have, on several occasions, given vent to sectarian "Hindu rage." Fear of this rage perhaps srves to keep those Muslims in check just as much as Mr. Friedman's much-vaunted 'multiethnic, pluralistic, free-market democracy.' " A slightly darker vision.

(Holgate, I crack up everytime I see "the Graun." Good to see that meme's still alive in the age of spellchecking.)
posted by rodii at 6:56 AM on November 26, 2001

« Older The Works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft   |   In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments