Monday, July 17, 2006

Debating Democracy

The folks over at NRO's The Corner have been having a spirited debate about the efficacy of democratization as a counterterrorism method in light of recent events in Lebanon. Andy McCarthy started the debate by asking if fighting terrorism through democratization migh be - and might have always been - a mistake.
"So now the Lebanese democracy can't control Hezbollah (which has been freely elected and controls about a fifth of its legislature), while the Palestinian Authority IS Hamas (the Palestinian people having democratically put them in power)."
This is the same mistake I'm worried the administration has been willing to make - the assumption that elections equals democracy. In either the 2002 NSS or the 2003 National Counterterrorism Strategy (I forget which - maybe both), the administration broke states down into three categories: states that were willing and able to fight terrorists operating within its borders (most developed countries), states that, regardless of whether they were able, weren't willing to fight terrorists operating within their borders (syria, Iran, etc), and states that were willing, but not able to fight terrorists operating within their borders. States such as the Philippines and Indonesia fit into this last category. The Arroyo government in Philippines got US help in going after Abu Sayyaf and other Islamic militants operating in the south. Indonesia got US help in fighting Jemaah Islamiya. For whatever reason, however, we never gave post-Cedar Revolution Lebanon much help. True, perhaps they didn't want any, but I'm willing to bet that the West more or less dropped Lebanon after it held large demostrations and elected its own government. Lebanon may have been on the road to being a democracy, but there was not much it could do to strengthen itself enough to offer the services incumbent on any government - the same services Hezbollah had been offering in the south of Lebanon to win over support. This wasn't a failure of democracy to fight terrorism, it was a failure to ensure a fledgling democracy move beyond elections and be able to govern effectively.

This is a similar point Cliff May makes in a response to McCarthy on The Corner.
And finally, yes, Hamas was elected, but, no, that doesn’t mean Gaza and the West Bank are “democratic.” Democracy requires the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press, and many other attributes. If someone got up on a soapbox in Gaza City tomorrow and said: “Vote for me, I’m the peace candidate!” he’d be shot dead within an instant and there’d be no arrest or trial. That’s not what happens in a liberal democracy.
The discussion also touched on the way in which democracy does (or does not) fight terrorism. McCarthy says the in response to a comment by John Podhoretz:
John, with due respect, terrorists have managed to strike us, repeatedly, from within our own 230-year-old democracy (where they have managed to plot for years without detection before attacking). The beach heads for the 9/11 plot were in Hamburg and Madrid. The current hotspots are in London, Paris, Milan and Amsterdam. Check out yesterday's Wall Street Journal op-ed by Swapan Dasgupta about India's emerging terrorist nightmare — it's homegrown.
McCarthy came to my school earlier this year to talk, along with two professors from the law school, about the legal aspect of the war on terror. At the end of his talk, however, he brought out this same argument. I thought this then, and this new debate reminds me: McCarthy is arguing against something of a strawman here. The contention has never been that terrorists can not live, plan and operate within the borders of a democracy. I live in a democracy, but if I decided that I wanted to go kill some people, the fact that I voted last Novemeber in an election will not stop the thought from running through my head. McCarthy continues knocking down straw-men:
"On the other hand, selling democratization as a complete, self-contained response to terrorism is nothing beyond a more appealing manifestation of the regnant political correctness that induces us to call this enterprise the "war on terror" lest we offend anyone by mentioning who the enemy is"
This, has really never been the case. Even with its commitment to democratization, therefore, the administration has not ended counterterrorist operations. I don't even know if there is an official count of the number of countries in which US forces are either killing terrorists themselves or teaching the local forces how to kill terrorists (again, back to Philippines and Indonesia like I mentioned above). The focus of democratization is not, and never has been, on the terrorists themselves. Democracy is not going to change how they think or act. The trick is to find a way to decrease their support; to make it easier for us to get at the terrorists to root them out.

In his book The Case for Democracy, Natan Sharansky delineates between two segments of the population in what he calls a "Fear Society:" the true believers and those who have no alternative. The focus of democratization, therefore, should not be on the "true believers," the terrorists themselves, but rather on the general populace, and how to decrease its support for the terrorists so as to make it easier for the military to clean up. There's the administration's claim that democracies allow an alternative to terrorism as a forum for letting out ones grievances, political ambitions, etc. I think there is a great deal of truth to this, but I also think it has a lot to do with something a lot more simple: access to the necessities for everyday survival. So much of the support enjoyed by Islamic fundamentalist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah comes from their ability to provide basic services for those willing to support them. Where the dysfunctional Middle Eastern state fails so miserably in providing the basic services that, as a state s government, it should be obligated to provide for its people, the mosque steps in and fulfills that role. As a result, the people's allegiance is transferred from the state to to mosque or Islamist group.

There is no doubt, however, that democracies, even somewhat weak ones, govern better than authoritarian regimes. The following is an excerpt from my thesis that I wrote on the same subject.

"For the handful of examples of authoritarian states successfully promoting economic development and democratization, there have been significantly more authoritarian states that have sustained sub-par economic growth and little sign of political liberalization. In fact, the record indicates that low-income countries would be better served skipping the authoritarian stage and democratizing instead. Low-income democracies and democratizing states have “outperformed their authoritarian counterparts on a full range of development indicators…including life expectancy, literacy, access to clean drinking water, agricultural productivity, infant mortality."
Since a democratic regime is beholden to the entire population, and not just the political, ethnic or economic faction that put it in power, it is forced to provide services to the entire population. When the average citizen is forced to support a certain movement or group because it provides medical services or clothing for his children, his support will not transfer back to the central government until he is sure that government can provide the same services. Authoritarian governments do not have the track record of being able to provide there services - or, indeed, being willing to provide these services to those not in the specific political or ethnic groups it counts on for protection and loyalty.

If you were to put a democratic regime in government as opposed to an authoritarian one, a democratic regime that was at the point where it could provide these services to its people, you can bet support for the terrorist groups would decline sharply. A terrorist group that loses its support among the public is left open and exposed to the states military and police forces. No longer can terrorists hide among the local population and count on those people to keep silent about who among them is a terrorist and who isn't. With this, they lose one of their most effective weapons - being able to cause the world to question the government's position on the moral high ground because it is forced to bomb indiscriminately - civilian and terrorist alike - because they can't tell who is who.

No one argues it is a cure-all. Democracy does not eliminate the need for a military response to bomb the hell out of the bad guys. Democracy does, however, make it far more easy to implement this military response, b/c people are increasingly willing to point out who the bad guys are. Democracy does not affect the terrorist response so much as it affects the response of the rest of the population.

One last thing: McCarthy raises the (legitimate) question of whether we really want to see democracies in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia given the likely alternative. Unfortunately this is true - but only because so many of those arguing against democratization have made it true (I don't intend this as an attack on McCarthy - I have no idea what his position has been on this subject over the years). The reason this is the likely outcome in these states is because of decades of American support for dictators. While there is little we can do about that now, if the United States continues to support oppressive dictators rather than liberal democrats, it will make this drawback to democracy a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will not promote democracy because uncertainty about what the outcome will be necessitates supporting "friendly" dictators, while the supposrt for these dictators will create the conditions whereby the outcome will be too uncertain to allow for democracy promotion.


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