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

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Bosnia, Ethnic Rivalry, And The Failure Of Western-Style Democracy

The year 2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the massacre of Srebrenica, and political analysts are still trying to draw lessons and conclusions.  While it is clear that the break-up of Tito’s Yugoslavia unleashed long-suppressed and violent ethnic resentment and hatred, these analysts are puzzling over the fact that two decades after the war, ethnic divisions are not only still there but increasing. Edward P. Joseph writing in the New York Times (7.11.15) notes:
Reconciliation among Bosnia’s Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks today, so many years after the war, still seems like a distant proposition. Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, recently termed the Srebrenica massacre “the greatest deception of the 20th century.
Flag Republika srpska
Yet, why is Joseph or anyone surprised that ethnic rivalries that have existed for centuries can be erased in twenty years?  Moreover, in that short space of time, more and more countries have rejected liberal democracy for just this kind of Balkan ethnic separatism.  Ethnic factionalism is the rule in Russia and Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, and the rest of the Middle East.  Militant and radicalizing Muslim communities in France are rejecting liberté, égalité, fraternité, the cultural unity of the French Republic, and secularism. God’s law is supreme and takes precedence over any laws of the State.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have repeatedly said that Western-style democracy is not appropriate for their countries; and that one-party rule in a relatively homogeneous state expresses the will of the people. While the Chinese admit their problems with the Uighurs and the Russians theirs with Chechnya, both leaders embody an imperial cultural destiny.  The days of the czars and Mandarins are as close to them as the Battle of Kosovo (1389) is to today’s Serbians.

Americans neither understand nor accept the drive for ethnic separatism and one-party rule; and until they do they will always be inept and clueless in foreign policy.  One has only to look at the frenetic but hopeless chase of the Obama Administration's John Kerrey and before him Hillary Clinton to promote liberal democracy around the world.

America and democracy are synonymous. We have been ardent advocates for free-and-fair elections, popular representation, and orderly political transition for 250 years; and after all this time have refined the process.  Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jung-Il, Idi Amin, Mobutu, and many other leaders have been labeled as tin-pot dictators and to us are throwbacks to former ages of tyranny.  Everyone from Genghis Khan to English kings ruled their subjects through secular power and by divine right, but it is still surprising to us that democracy only emerged in the late 18th century. 

Such amazement shows our profound misunderstanding of history, and we ignore the hardwired, fundamental drive to accumulate wealth and power at our peril.  We misjudged the overwhelming force of State, kingdom, and empire; but were always convinced that  the human spirit, long dormant, would eventually be freed as it was during the French Revolution.  The streets ran with blood, but the voices of the people were finally heard.



We and the French today overlook the brutality of the post-revolutionary period when Robespierre and Madame Lafarge ruled the roost, when La Veuve chopped off the heads of aristocrats and aristocratic sympathizers alike, and the Reign of Terror claimed tens of thousands of lives. The first years of French ‘democracy’ were anything but democratic. Cruel, swift, and arbitrary justice ruled.  Centuries of frustration, subjugation, and misery were paid for by the blood of tyrants.

The real French Revolution exists only in idealistic, patriotic memory. The Terror has been forgotten, and only the glory of La France and its people remain.  France, England, and the rest of Western Europe which went through paroxysms of civil and international wars though their entire history, believe they are now integrated, harmonious unions; and we believe that America is still the strong beacon of democracy guiding less fortunate nations.

At first we thought that the civil unrest in the Middle East during the Arab Spring was an expression of the same democratic spirit that inspired us in 1776.  While the bloody retribution and sectional violence reminded us of 1789, we were convinced that the Egyptians and others were simply throwing off the yoke of an exploitive and abusive power.  The force of arms was required, but conflict would soon end – as it did in early America – to be replaced by a liberal democracy based on reason, faith, and justice.

This, of course, is not what happened at all.  Egypt got very messy.  Syrians, overly optimistic and encouraged by the events in other parts of the Arab world, thought that they could bring down their own dictator, but not only did the Syrian dictator turn out to be stronger and more canny than the West had thought, but the opposition quickly became fractured.  Anti-democratic forces began to hijack what began as a populist uprising, and soon Islamic militants began fighting among themselves.  They had no interest in democratic reform whatsoever, only in establishing Islamic rule and a Muslim Caliphate.

Who were the good guys, we wondered? Americans are used to black hats and white hats, the forces of Good and the forces of Evil – not this tangle of competing religious and secular factions. The Trump Administration seems as befuddled by the region's competing interests as his predecessors.


Democracy keeps getting all screwed up.  A few years ago there were democratic elections in Palestine and a devoutly anti-democratic regime – Hamas – won in Gaza.  What was the United States to do?  It couldn’t very well turn its back on a democratically-elected government, but this one was an implacable enemy of Israel and the United States.  It was quickly becoming clear that Third World democracy was no picnic.

The recent crisis in Ukraine posed similar conundrums.  A democratically elected President was deposed by a violent mob who wanted the country to move away from Russia and towards the EU. Despite the anti-democratic process which removed Yanukovych, the United States was happy.  Finally we could extend NATO all the way to Russia’s borders, advance Western ideals and private enterprise to Putin’s door, and achieve our goal of corporate-political-military hegemony. 

Putin, of course, was having none of it.  Democracy, he knew, was a very subjective construct, and Russia had only known twenty years of a rough-and-tumble political process that only vaguely resembled it.  For the rest of its history the country had only known Imperial Russia and Soviet Communism.  As long as Russia could emerge from the humiliation of breakup of the Soviet Union, reestablish itself as a world power, and once again dominate and intimidate others like its old enemy the United States has done, democracy could take a back seat. 


We in the United States are amazed that Putin enjoys such a high popularity rating for his muscular moves in the Crimea and Ukraine and most recently his militant positions regarding the United States. Autocracy seems to be a viable alternative to liberal democracy.  It just depends on the observer.  It’s one thing to expect a dictator to push people around, but to have ordinary Russians who after centuries have at last seen the light of democracy support their dictator President is another altogether.


However, we shouldn’t be amazed and should know better.  The Arab Spring should have taught us that Western-style democracy is the last concern of the resurgent military in Egypt, of President Putin, Hamas, or certainly President Assad in Syria. Democracy for the Arab street is simply the freedom to establish mini-hegemonies.  Dictators like Tito kept the lid on religious and ethnic differences for decades, and once he was deposed, all hell broke loose.  Bosnians, Muslims, Kosovars, and all the rest cared little about establishing liberal democracies to replace totalitarianism.  They only wanted Bosnian, Muslim, Kosovar, or Serbian supremacy.  Today’s Middle East is no different.
Establishing democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq was a stated goal of American Neocons.  We would topple and erase the Taliban, medieval oppressors of women, protectors of Osama Bin Laden, and tribal warlords. We would introduce democratic reforms in Baghdad, and free the people from the years of tyranny of Saddam Hussein.

The result turned out to be far different from what we expected.  No one in Afghanistan or Pakistan cares a whit about democratic ideals and are only interested in establishing their own kingdoms, caliphates, or dictatorships.  Once again, the entire region is beset by ethnic and religious violence.

In the Middle East the same struggles are occurring.  There are so many Muslim factions, sects, and sub-sects that no one in Langley, MI5, or the Pentagon can keep track of them.  There are no good guys or bad guys.  Seen through the lens of the liberal democrat, they are all bad, retrograde, and anti-democratic.  The State Department can’t even decide what to do with the one group that is coherent about its aims.  ISIS has been very clear about its desire to establish a Muslim Caliphate and is stopping at nothing to achieve its end; but the US refuses to acknowledge the religious and ethnic basis for the movement, to name ISIS as an enemy, and to wage all-out war to defeat it. Although in recent years ISIS has suffered many battlefield losses, it is no less an important political force.

The United States seems paralyzed and neutered. We put all our eggs in the basket of the new Ukrainian government which may or may not have Neo-Fascists in its ranks, but was for sure a hodge-podge of amateurs, sectionalists, and anti-democrats.  Now that President Trump has made overtures to Putin and is focusing on Kissinger-style realpolitik instead of exceptionalism and idealism, there may be some concerted geopolitical efforts in both Europe and the Middle East.

We insist on supporting a philosophy rather than a goal.  Putin wants to establish Russian hegemony over the Crimea and at least half of Ukraine, and his ambitions certainly don’t stop there.  The Russian people are behind him.  What does the US want, other than to promote democracy and market capitalism?  We didn’t want Iraq enough to occupy it for decades like the Romans, Persians, or even Soviets did their conquered lands.  No one in Congress wants a barren, mountainous, stone-age country like Afghanistan as an American province.  We have no compelling territorial or imperial interests motivating us. We are bound to lose.

Western-style democracy is being challenged like never before.  No one seems to pay attention to the United States, nor hear Ronald Reagan’s hymn to America, the Shining City on a Hill.  China dismisses liberal democracy as an irritation. Prosperity before democracy, today’s Chinese mandarins proclaim; and the proof is in the pudding.  China has enjoyed double-digit GDP growth for many years and hundreds of millions of Chinese are better off than they ever were.

Because of the increasing value of natural resources, we turn a blind eye to African despotism.  We talk the democratic talk, but are interested only in oil and the essential minerals that enable our cellphones and computers to talk to each other.  Democracy is a joke in Africa, and despite the ambitious desire to demonstrate African success stories, every American administration has come up empty.  Hilary Clinton thought she had a winner in Mali, but after a military coup exposed her naïveté and/or ignorance, it was clear that she and her State Department had either grossly misjudged the rampant corruption of the deposed President, or were willing to turn a blind eye to it.

Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”; and I wonder what he would make of today’s mess.  The best we can say is that the factions let loose in the Middle East and elsewhere are now free to duke it out; and this is a form of democratic expression. Some countries like China don’t seem to need Western-style democracy, so how could 1.5 billion people be wrong? Putin is simply acting on a 1200 year-old historical imperative, and for the time being he has no truck with Western trifles.



Human nature rules as Machiavelli, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche well knew.  Democracy has been a modern and less despotic way of accumulating wealth and power, but only that.  Our Founding Fathers believed democracy was a gift from God, but no one seriously ever believed that.  It is a political system like all others, part of the Grand Mechanism of history the wheels of which turn perpetually and predictably.  Democracy is now going through structural change.  Obama and his White House crew didn't even know it was happening let alone have any idea what to do about it. Donald Trump seems to appreciate the amoral world of geopolitics better than most, but does he have the skills and experience to negotiate rough waters?
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No one should be surprised at anything in Bosnia, Serbia, the Balkans, Russia, or the Middle East.


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