Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Appeal of Authoritarianism

For months I've argued that democracy has no natural home in either Afghanistan or Iraq; that we can't simply impose something we ourselves took centuries to evolve into. Here's another take on that same point by Ian Bremmer writing in Slate:

"Beginning in 2000, newly elevated President Vladimir Putin restored Russian stability by concentrating political power in the Kremlin, curbing free expression in the country's media, and consolidating economic power in the hands of the state. (The tripling of oil prices over the last four years has made his work much easier.) This forceful reimposition of order has earned Putin a 70-plus-percent approval rating. Broadly speaking, Russians have chosen the order that flows from authoritarianism over the chaos they believe was generated by ill-considered attempts to impose Western-style democracy.

"The people of Afghanistan may already be headed toward the same conclusion. Afghans have nothing like the collective sense of national identity that Iraqis have developed over the last several decades or Russians over the last several centuries—and the elections that made Hamid Karzai president of Afghanistan are even less likely to generate lasting democracy.

"Building democracy in a state with no democratic history is the work of decades—and it can't be done on the cheap. Investing considerable human, political, and financial capital in support of the construction of democracy in two such states simultaneously, acting as if national elections and good police work will create an inexpensive and self-sustaining momentum toward stable political pluralism, is foolhardy.

"Democracy and the open society needed to nourish it requires more than peaceful elections. It demands the steady long-term development of governing institutions that are independent of one another, trump the power of the country's dominant political personalities, and earn the faith of its citizens.

"The United States can continue to try to safeguard Iraq's security until that nation's political leaders forge the compromises needed to begin the long-term process of democratization. But American and British troops will not remain in Iraq indefinitely, because American and British taxpayers won't allow it.

"Iraqis may be pleased with that option as well. When people face the daily uncertainties of life in a dangerously unstable country, they value stability above all else. Freedom from fear trumps the freedom to vote. Until Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds are finally free from fear of sectarian attack and economic exclusion, they will demand stability—just as Russians demand a strong president instead of a strong presidency. Many Iraqis will pledge allegiance to those who can protect them from other Iraqis.

"The process of democratization creates instability in Iraq, Russia, Afghanistan, and any other state in which democracy remains an import. Democratization releases repressed demand for change, and previously disenfranchised players scramble for the first time for a share of the country's political and economic spoils.

"Authoritarians are much better than democrats at quickly bringing order in such a frightening environment. This is mainly because it is easier and more efficient to impose martial law than to build political consensus. The volatility of democratic transitions creates demand for authoritarianism. If a country has more experience with dictators than with democrats, this demand may be second nature.

"In the end, this option might not be as unsavory as it sounds. Before Iraq can become a democracy, it must become a country safe enough for open political debate. As so many have argued, the violence in Iraq requires a political, not a military, solution. And as Bismarck once said, politics is the art of the possible."

Bremmer's right. We don't have a snowball's chance of installing democracy in Afghanistan. We have to stop using that notion as a justification for the "sacrifice" of our soldiers' lives. Maybe we need to re-open the debate Harper so undemocratically shut down. But we won't. We'll stick silly little plastic magnets on the back of our cars and that way ignore the reality of what we're doing to the Afghans and our own soldiers.

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