I’ve been meaning to try to engage some of the issues raised by Andy in his democracy/Maliki posts recently, which I hope to do in a more considered way at some point. For now a few quick, rambling things that occur to me (and not all of these are responding to things Andy directly said–I go off on some tangents):
1) Andy puts an extremely high value on the merely rhetorical. Who cares what Maliki says, as longs as he performs (which is still in doubt)?
2) There are very few (any?) secular pro-Israel politicians in any of these countries. Making their empowerment the standard for success is so unrealistic it makes the neo-con democracy project look positively hard-headed by comparison.
3) The problem is popular sentiment in these countries. That’s what has to change over the long run (the very long run obviously). As long as that sentiment exists, it is going to be accommodated to some extent or other, by democrats and/or by dictators.
Take Musharraf. He might be better than many of the alternatives, but he also plays an Islamist-enabling double-game. Mubarak might be better than many of the alternatives too, but he works to bolster the Muslim Brotherhood and repress more liberal forces so he can scare the West even more with the alternative to his rule.
If you want the prime example of a “good” dictator gone bad, look no further than Yasser Arafat. The original idea behind giving him the PA was that he would repress Hamas and keep things under reasonable control, just like Musharraf and Mubarak. Didn’t work out too well.
Now we have Abbas. We were hoping he would exert control. But he thought he needed more legitimacy so he asked for an election that he hoped would give him the leverage to get Hamas to disarm. Instead, Hamas won. So neither dictatorship nor democracy has “worked” in the PA (which goes to show how there’s no easy answer here).
4) To have someone rule Iraq in stark defiance of the broad sentiments of the Shia population that Maliki represents would require, I’m guessing, a pretty brutal dictatorship, a Saddam-lite.
5) I think it’s a mistake to say this is World War III or IV, since that cues people to imagine huge clashes of arms between nation states. We’re really fighting a global insurgency. There’s a military aspect to it, but also a political aspect that involves–unfortunately, given how maddening it is–caring about how these societies are governed and trying to nudge them in a more reasonable direction. We can’t prevail by force alone.
How do you win the political fight?
The trick is to find people who have legitimacy in these societies (which means they aren’t going to share our attitudes about Israel or secularism) who can represent a model of governance more appealing than dictatorship and terror. That’s the hope Maliki represents. If he says lots of thing we don’t like, if he plays footsie with Sadr, if he supports some laws that make Westerners blanch, it will all be forgivable if he actually manages to establish an Iraqi state that is broadly representative, that has no aggressive designs on its neighbors, that transacts no business with al Qaeda or other terror groups, and that doesn’t develop WMD.
Of course, this problem could be worked from the other end, by a reforming dictator rather than by a semi-illiberal democrat. But I’m not sure establishing reliable dictatorships is much easier than creating democracies. Besides, I think in this day and age the only way we can create legitimacy for any government we set up is by getting democratic support for it. (Also, as a practical matter, there’s point 4.)
6) There is a struggle going on over how the Middle East will be governed, and there’s no mistaking that democracy is losing at the moment. Democracy has to establish its prestige and legitimacy through successful governance, which it hasn’t demonstrated to this point in Iraq, the PA, or Lebanon.
7) Some of the neo-cons have been known to despair over American culture because it’s not tough and war-like enough. I don’t think that’s a problem. What I worry about is that our political culture lacks the patience to see through a struggle that’s going to be very, very long and involve defeats (at worst) and fitful progress (at best). It’s been a good couple of weeks for the “to hell with them” hawks.