George W. Bush campaigned for the presidency on a pledge not to engage in the nation-building experiments that characterized the Clinton years, and, like every other president of the 20th century, he did not simply break his major promises: He did exactly the opposite. Naturally, his administration has plenty of excuses. Failing to discover those famous WMDs, whose location they knew with pinpoint accuracy before the invasion, the President’s power ministers and their advisors had to come up with other justifications, and building democracy had a nobler ring to it than, say, acquiring oil or protecting Israel.
The President has been uncharacteristically clear in stating the objectives of his own experiment in democratic nation-building: “Raising up a democracy requires the rule of law, protection of minorities and strong, accountable institutions that last longer than a single vote,” and he lauds the “dramatic progress of a new democracy.”
In the early years of the experiment, lavish funding was given to the usual agencies and conspiracies, which, under the guise of building democratic institutions, work to undermine and destabilize regimes we regard as unfriendly or even uncooperative. The National Endowment for Democracy received some $71 million for promoting democracy in Iraq, and these funds were disbursed to its American satellites as well as to Iraqi groups with such high-sounding names as the Organization for a Model Iraqi Society. The success of this effort can be measured every day in Iraq, not only on the streets, where sectarian violence has reached the level of a true civil war, but even in the Iraqi parliament, which still, despite mounting U.S. threats, took many months to form a government, democratic or otherwise. The President apparently agrees with this assessment of his experiment, since funding for these projects has virtually run out.
Only a child or a diehard Republican could have believed that American-style democracy would work in Iraq. Words and laws do not make a constitution, but the character of the people. Clyde Wilson has made this argument for as long as I can remember, but so did the late Octavio Paz, in his brilliant reflections on Mexico, The Labyrinth of Solitude. Mexican liberals adopted the language of bourgeois liberalism found in Western constitutions, but the newly independent states of Latin America had no bourgeoisie to speak of, let alone the traditions of self-government that Britain and the United States had been developing for centuries. The Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century, while it pretended—not always without justification—to address these evils, has only strengthened the power of a wealthy ruling class that continues to exploit the poor, whose only relief is America’s undefended southern border.
If Mexico, with legal and political traditions going back to Europe, has not succeeded, over the past 200 years, in establishing democratic capitalism, Iraq’s hopes must be dim indeed. But far more interesting than our inevitable failure to impose democracy in Iraq are the assumptions that the Bush administration seems to take for granted. What, in the first place, does George W. Bush mean when he says he is building democracy? On the one hand, he believes it is a victory for democracy when Palestinians vote for Hamas and want to develop a society very unlike our own. On the other hand, democracy means a list of rights only guaranteed in a few Western democracies: not only the right to vote but the freedoms of religion, press, and speech, and the right to due process and trial by jury guaranteed by our own Bill of Rights. Yet, when the puppet government we have installed in Afghanistan presumes to apply Islamic law to a Christian convert, the President is “deeply troubled,” having heard “the fact that a person who has converted away from Islam may be held to account. That’s not the universal application of the values that I talked about.”
The President’s disturbed state of mind stems, at least in part, from his firm belief that Islam and democracy are compatible. Back in November 2003, the President presented us with this insight as a self-evident truth “that Islam . . . is consistent with democratic rule. Democratic progress is found in many predominantly Muslim countries—in Turkey and Indonesia, and Senegal and Albania, Niger and Sierra Leone.”
Senegal, Niger, and Sierra Leone have, for several years, maintained constitutional order and a rule of law, and, although one wishes them well, it is far too early to speak of stable “democratic rule”: There was a time, for example, when the Ivory Coast and even Haiti were being touted for their democratic progress. Turkey and Albania are another matter. Both Turks and Albanians have a long history of violence and militarism, and the Albanian civil war of the late 1990’s was an orgy of destruction. According to Amnesty International, Albanians today, in and out of government, routinely abuse women (rape and white slavery are common), and other “human rights” groups have documented an appalling number of people tortured by prison guards and beaten by the police.
“Democratic” Turkey has a long history of persecution of Christians, which continues up to this day. Some progress has been made in both countries, but, if President Bush regards them as beacons of democracy in the Islamic world, I shudder to think of what democratic privileges he may be preparing for the American people.
So, on the one hand, democracy means abiding by election results and maintaining the rule of law, while, on the other, no democratically elected anti-American regime is really democratic, and any rogue state can be a democracy so long as it plays ball with the U.S. State Department. On the third hand (the hand that every politician has in our pockets), democracy means the conquest of a foreign country and the imposition of an unpopular alien regime. Democracy can have so many meanings because, to the President’s low and dishonest speechwriters, words are only little gadgets with which to trick the voters into giving favorable answers in opinion polls. The strategy is no longer working for George W. Bush, whose approval ratings have reached Nixonian levels.
Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, neoconservatives were proclaiming the glories of global democracy. One of their favorite sayings in those days was that democracies never wage aggressive war. Even they—as ignorant of history as, say, Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol are—could not possibly have been serious. Was the American Union a democratic state when it attacked the Confederacy? Was Britain a democracy when she plotted war against Germany in the opening years of the 20th century? Was the government of Jacobin France a democracy when it set out to conquer Europe? Or the United States a democracy when she invaded the Philippines? Was Athens a democracy when it converted the Delian League into the Athenian Empire and provoked war with Sparta and its allies, or when it slaughtered the men of a tiny island (Melos) and sold their women and children into slavery for the sole reason that the Melians refused to submit to the Athenian Empire?
At the end of World War II, Lawrence Dennis was tried for treason because he had accused FDR of defending democracy abroad in order to destroy it at home. If Dennis were alive today and making a similar argument, he would not be put on trial, because, 60 years after the last good war, there is no one left capable of following a rational argument. Political argument has been shouted down by the deafening raspberry of ten million perpetual adolescents lobotomized by television, computers, and the worst education that money can buy. Still, just before the dark descends, we might ask ourselves if any imperial people has ever remained free. Ask the Athenians, ask the Romans, ask the Aztecs.
Democratic peoples are not always as bloodthirsty as the Athenians who created democracy, but neither are monarchies or oligarchies. The difference is that the elite that pulls all the strings in a democracy must always lie to the people to persuade them that every aggressive war is actually a war to save “democracy” or impose “liberty” on people who may not want it. The result is that the oligarchs who rule all modern democracies are more corrupt, more childish, more vulgar, more dishonest than the overt oligarchs, whether Roman and Venetian senators or Latin American dictators.
It is small wonder that our poor President is bewildered by his own rhetoric. Democracies mean free elections, which are an expression of popular liberty, and therefore will lead to peace, always and everywhere. Except when Hamas wins, or Hezbollah picks up votes in Lebanon, or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or Islamic fanatics in Iran and Algeria, or nationalists in Slovakia or Serbia or Belarus. Then, it turns out that democracy is part of a painful process that must be guided by the sober heads of the European Union or the United States. In Serbia, we supported the gangster Zoran Djindjic as a defender of democracy but have always opposed Vojislav Kostunica, a constitutionalist and expert on the Federalist.
Once upon a time, it made sense for loyal Americans to acquiesce in the pious fraud that equated “democracy” with responsible and limited constitutional government. Those days are gone. Any legitimate constitutional system rests on a certain stalemating of the forces that aim at despotism. The legislature checks the executive, and the courts check the legislature; populist unrest disciplines the aristocracy, and the Church may humiliate the king. These days, however, there appears to be no check on the ambitions of our rulers, whose control of the media makes them virtually immune to failure. Clintons and Bushes may squabble over budget details, but both dynasties agree that it is our sublime mission to fight terrorism in Iraq while allowing the terrorists to cross our southern border with impunity. Terrorism seems to be the only reality check this regime faces.
I am reminded of W.S. Gilbert’s prescient farce on a modern state in which “We have no need to think, because our monarch anticipates all our wants, and our political opinions are formed for us by the journals to which we subscribe.” The ruler is, however, subjected to the terrorist whim of the two judges who may, for any reason, direct the “Public Exploder” to blow him up. This “ideal Republic” is described as “Despotism tempered by dynamite.” Post-Christian American adventurism has provoked its nemesis: a global terror campaign waged by pitiless men who believe in a god.
The United States has never been and will never be a democracy. The original confederation of states was founded as a semi-aristocratic republic, and, by 1860, it had developed many features of popular government. Between 1860 and 1960, both the Constitution and popular government were converted, under the usual justifications of war and economic crisis, into an imperial plutocracy. In the decades since, the three branches of the federal government have dismantled whatever democratic features remained as an obstacle to the total state: the rights of states and local communities; the moral and social influence of Christian churches; the authority of parents over their children; the main-street businessmen who stood in the way of Wall Street and Wal-Mart. All of this was done in the name of democracy. The subjects of the American state are now without any defense against their ruling class, which is why our Peter Pans can only let off steam in three-word comments on websites.
Americans, if they wish to do any good in the world, must learn to give up all of the clichés they were taught in civics textbooks and patriotic speeches and look at the reality of the world our rulers have created. Even the briefest glimpse at this made-in-America hell should scare the most stalwart Republican out of the GOP and the yellowest dog out of the Democratic Party. Do not look for mass defections in the next election. Self-deception is the rule here, and, although the lies neither begin nor end with “democracy,” they all culminate in that lie to trump all lies.