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

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Western-Style Democracy Is Finished

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.  Although there have been a few recent glitches (Gore vs. Bush), it has worked relatively smoothly and well.  Conservatives and liberals may disagree on the fairness of the playing field – ‘progressives’ bemoan the demise of grass-roots democracy because of the increasing role of lobbyists and Big Capital and Republicans are incensed about the role of the ‘liberal’ media - but all in all the political engine has been fine-tuned, well-oiled, and humming for years. 

It has been hard, therefore, for Americans to understand totalitarianism.  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, and it is 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, are now one integrated, harmonious union.  America is the strong beacon guiding emerging nations to the new world of democracy.

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.

Democracy was getting all screwed up.  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.

Now what to do in Ukraine?  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 a popularity rating of over ninety-percent for his muscular moves in the Crimea and Ukraine.  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 United States is now paralyzed and neutered. We are putting all our eggs in the basket of the new Ukrainian government which may or may not have Neo-Fascists in its ranks, but is for sure a hodge-podge of amateurs, sectionalists, and anti-democrats.  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.

So, back to the drawing board, folks.  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, and Obama and his White House crew don’t even know it’s happening let alone have any idea what to do about it.
As the old Chinese curse goes, “May you live in interesting times”.

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