"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Death of Democracy II

There is something gratifying about seeing the long lines of Afghans waiting to vote. Fed up after years of Karzai and his corrupt regime, they have been waiting for a chance to vote someone else in – someone who will provide resolution to the long, bloody, and brutal conflict that has killed thousands and disrupted and destroyed the country.

In American eyes ‘free and fair elections’, the signal and fundamental principle of Western democracy, has become not only an expression of a liberal political philosophy but a mystical experience.  Once people have exercised their God-given right to cast a ballot, we believe, they will be transformed.  Regardless of poverty, isolation, or lives on the margin, their vote will be an expression and confirmation of individual will, worth, and potential. No longer will they be marginalized, forgotten people, but important citizens who, with one ballot freely cast, become part of an enlightened democratic society.

A number of years ago I travelled frequently in the Amazon jungle. On the way down the mountain from Quito to the Rio Napo, a major tributary of the Amazon, we stopped at a narrow switchback to have a glass of sugarcane juice, hand-pressed by an Otavalan Indian who had moved his family from the highlands to set up a roadside stand halfway down the mountain.

The jungle extended to the horizon in all directions.  It was as flat as a prairie, but uniformly green.  Two million square miles of trees from the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean.  Only flying over it as I did years later, could I appreciate its size and immeasurable vastness.  The green canopy had  few variations in high, color, density, or texture; just two million miles of trees extending for more than three thousand miles.

Shortly after we arrived in the small port town of Misaualli, the proprietor of our small hotel told us that there were Americans living in the jungle not far from town, and that I might like to ride out to see them.  I said that I would, and after three hours on a rutted track through the jungle, arrived.  There in the middle of a swath of cleared land was a white, Iowa farmhouse with a porch swing, picket fence, trellis of tropical flowers, and an old-fashioned well, and a small barn.  Two little blonde girls, dressed in petticoats and pinafores were playing on the lawn.

The Hendersons were warm, friendly, and hospitable.  They invited us in for dinner -  a full spread of pot roast, garden vegetables, mashed potatoes, milk, and blueberry pie.  After dinner, the father and I sat on the porch swing, and he told me what they were doing in this remote part of the high Amazon.

“We are bringing the Lord to these people”, he said, pointing to a group of Amazonian Indians who were working the fields nearby. “Before we came, they worshipped trees, rocks, and animals, if you can believe it.  Pagan, heathen beliefs.  The lived in a dark, godless world.  They wore no clothes, copulated like buffalo, and had no shame.”  He paused to sip his tea and reached for his Bible.

“We brought them the Word of God”, he said, tapping the well-worn leather cover of the book.  First we only read to them, and then, with the help of Jesus, we taught them to read.  We clothed their shame, righted their ways, and they joined the communion of the Lord”.  A young Indian came out to the porch with glasses of lemonade.  “Jose”, he said, “What did the Lord say to the Pharisees in the Temple?”.  Jose, still holding the silver tray, recited, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”  He stumbled over the verses a bit. ‘Pharisees’ came out ‘Frizzies’, and he mumbled the last few words, but both he and the missionary were proud of the performance.

“See”, the missionary said.  “The Lord’s work has been done”.

Bringing elections to the people of Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, or Angola has been no different.  The elections are not means to an end, but anointed, sacred, purifying and transforming rituals. Voting – a magical expression of individual and collective will – is as powerful as the Word of God.

Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth.  Democracy is a complex and complicated institution requiring the rule of law, a fair and transparent judicial system, strong financial and public institutions, and a representative government which reaches down to the smallest village.  It takes years if not decades to transform a centralized public government monopoly into a functioning democracy. The assumption that elections in the countries of the Arab Spring would magically bring harmony, truth and reconciliation, and economic progress was as ignorant and idealistic a notion ever to come out of the State Department.

Ethnic and religious groups and factions have hated each other for centuries.  Sunnis and Shiites have fought over religious legitimacy since the time of Mohammed.  The fight between Serbs and Kosovars goes back to the early Middle Ages.  Putin justified Russian sovereignty over Crimea and Ukraine by patriotically recalling Czarist history, Catherine the Great, and Kiev as the center of Russian Orthodoxy.  As Putin has made perfectly clear, Russia has no time for Western trifles.  Elections and the ‘national sovereignty’ of Ukraine have no relevance at all for a new imperial Russia with a thousand years of majestic history behind it.

Regardless of who wins the elections in Afghanistan, the Taliban will take over the country.  They are smart, canny, fearless, moved by a religious fervor against which democracy pales in comparison, and absolutely committed to achieving their goals.  They are politically, religiously, and ideologically unified; and any factional cracks or ethnic differences have been grouted in the struggle against a common enemy.

If that weren’t enough, Afghanistan has no history of democratic government or a modern civil society.  In many ways it still is a medieval society based on absolute tribal authority and allegiance. Regardless of the electoral process which promoted Karzai to the presidency, Afghanistan has few if any of the basic institutions of democracy.  Its soul still can be found in its distant tribal origins.

It is no surprise that elected leaders with the same ancient tribal roots as the Taliban insurgents who threaten government have been ‘corrupt’ – a Western term which impugns the practice of tribal allegiances, simple equations of power, dominance, and longevity.  Of course Karzai has been cooperative if not complicit with the Taliban.  He knew that the Americans would never last, would soon depart, and leave the country to them.  The incalculable wealth generated by Taliban-controlled poppy fields has been only a partial incentive for corrupt politicians.  Survival has always depended upon either a quick exit and a house in the South of France or collusion with their soon-to-be masters.

The Neocon advisers to George W. Bush were besotted by their idealistic vision of American-style democracy and a belief in American exceptionalism like no others.  They were no different from the Hendersons in the Ecuadorian jungle.  Once these poor, ignorant bastards have seen the light of democracy, said Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, they will be saved.

It gets worse. Even if democracy ‘works’, it doesn’t work.  Hamas was elected through free and fair elections, but their governing principles have been anti-democratic.  Their electoral success had American political leaders scratching their heads.  They simply couldn’t square the fact that a democratically-elected party could act undemocratically. The Word of God was not supposed to have conditions.

Corrupt politicians have been elected through a free and fair process only to ransack the treasury, build palatial homes, sock millions away in Swiss bank accounts before they are finally ousted – if they ever are.  Yanukovych was elected by the Ukrainian people, enriched himself, played venal political games, and was tossed out by the Ukrainian ‘street’; and because the country has few real democratic institutions or a tradition of respectful Western-style liberal democracy, the next administration will probably be worse.

If the Arab Spring has done anything, it has given lie to the idea of Western-style democracy.  While American democrats have hailed the uprisings as true expressions of democracy, the demonstrations were just expressions of anger and hostility resulting from decades of repression of ethnic and religious allegiances.  The people of the Arab street did not demonstrate as one unified, democratic community, but a highly diversified mass of angry sectional groups. If one of these groups is elected and somehow manages to put together a government, it is certain that the defeated parties will go back to the streets and try to topple it.

Bangladesh is a good example.  While far more democratic than any of the countries in the Middle East, its political parties rarely accept defeat.  When one party wins an election, all members of the defeated party walk out of Parliament in protest resulting in one-party rule.  The institutions which could stop this political nonsense and introduce sanity into the democratic process are themselves corrupted.  I once asked a retired Secretary of Home Affairs in Dhaka what would be the first thing he would do to clean up the mess.  “Reform the judiciary”, he replied, for until judges refuse to be bought off, nothing will ever improve.  In other words, elections are all well and good, but until the country gets serious about democracy, it will continue to be a dysfunctional nation beset by strikes and violence.

Events of the past twenty-five years have taken the lid off of religious, ethnic, and regional rivalries that festered for decades under totalitarian rule.  These years have seen the coalescence of Islamic militants fueled by ferocious anti-American and anti-Israeli hatred.  Only with the establishment of a Muslim Caliphate will they and God be happy. They are an implacable, formidable enemy; but they have many adherents.

American leaders are also scratching their heads about the events in Syria.  OK, they said, Assad was never a real democrat, but he was a reliable secularist and an important player in Middle Eastern politics, so count him in.  Yet, his brutality and absolute commitment to destroying the opposition and staying in power seem unconscionable. No one who has seen the Light of Democracy, even though he has not followed it, should act in such a savage, undemocratic way.

Americans are just as befuddled by the savagery of Islamic militants who have no concern for civilian lives.  They blow up busses, schools, and public markets without a thought to the innocent people dismembered by their attacks. How could they? we innocently ask.  How immoral, inhuman, and evil! We choose to keep the history books closed to the likes of English kings, Crusaders, Genghis Khan, or the soldiers of our own Westward Expansion. Savagery is just the cost of doing business.

Only a small fraction of the world seems ready for American-style democracy. The rest is ready only to practice a factional version of it. Elect, topple, elect, and topple until civil and public institutions finally are created to provide the foundation for true representative government. Unfortunately demographics are not in our favor.  The Muslim world reproduces at a far faster rate than the democratic West.  China has never thought that democracy was worth much compared to rapid economic development; and despite our dismay, the country continues to march along with impressive GDP growth.  India, the world’s largest democracy has its own sectarian issues, and there is no way that still-corrupt Indian politicians can or will exorcise these ethnic and religious rivalries.

All of which means that it is time for American leaders to stop hoping that its sphere of influence will increase thanks to free and fair elections, and return to the realpolitik of Henry Kissinger, Clausewitz, and Machiavelli.  We should have backed the generals in Egypt instead of sitting idly by while the Muslim Brotherhood – antithetical to American interests – took over.  Now both the Brotherhood and the powerful Egyptian military hate us. Whatever happens in Syria, the stable secular regime of the Assad family is over, and Islamic fundamentalism will reign.  As abhorrent as it now seems, we should have either overtly backed Assad or kept our mouths shut about his expected demise and the ‘heroic’ radical Islamist opposition.

No one believes American cant about democracy anyway.  Africans have long known that the United States would back any dictator if he opened his natural resources to American oil companies, permitted military bases on his territory, or voted for Israel in the United Nations.  The list of brutal dictators we have supported on the continent is long and shameful.

Obama’s waffling, dithering, and mumbling about Crimea and Ukraine and total capitulation to Putin and Russia has not been a surprise.  We Americans have no clue how to deal with this new, anti-democratic world.  We are once again innocents abroad.  We have no chance against the Putins of the world.  We had the right idea back in the Fifties when we were clear, unequivocal, and determined in our desire to extend American hegemony and did what it took to achieve our goal.  We have now become a pusillanimous, indecisive, an innocently ‘democratic’ country.  It is time to get back to basics.

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