Freedom policy, command cultures

I was, and remain, a strong admirer of Ronald Reagan.  Yet I can still recall my misgivings when, in June 1982, Reagan delivered this line in the course of his June 1982 speech before the British Parliament:

What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term – the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.

The Cold War, I felt, was too arduous and uncertain a struggle for such breezy prognostications.

Nine years later, the Communist empire in Europe crumbled apart; and two years after that, the Soviet Union found itself on the ash-heap of history, just as Reagan predicted.

In his second inaugural speech, President Bush proclaimed what must now be called his freedom policy:  “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

A month later, speaking in Brussels to the assembled grandees of the European Union, the President spelled out his meaning quite forthrightly:  “We must be on the side of democratic reformers, we must encourage democratic movements, and support democratic transitions in practical ways.”

Once again, I felt uneasy.  Freedom means the absence of external constraint, and requires specific moral qualities, such as self-restraint.  Representative democracy depends on many unnatural beliefs:  that the most dismal leadership or policy failures are not failures of the system, for example.  Since the immediate target was the Middle East, where even God hardened His heart, the freedom policy seemed to me a bet against long odds.

I didn’t think the President was necessarily naive or unrealistic.  But I worried that his vision was ahistorical:  telescoping into a single political moment what only the slow unfolding of many events could deliver.

Then came the Iraqi elections of 30 January, with 60 percent of the electorate disregarding the threat of violence, and the party of the sitting prime minister, to the astonishment of most Middle Easterners I know, coming in a distant third in the voting.

That was followed by the election of Mahmud Abbas to the presidency of the Palestinian Authority, and the subsequent purge of corrupt Arafat cronies from the Abbas cabinet.

The mid-February bombing death of Rafiq Hariri in Lebanon, far from having its intended effect, ignited peaceful demonstrations on the Czech model that now threaten Syria’s occupation of that country.  Lebanese politicos, among whom there are few moist-eyed idealists, openly credit President Bush for the new opening to freedom.

Then came the Saudi municipal elections.  Then Hosni Mubarak had a sudden epiphany, and voiced support for presidential elections in which, for the first time in the long history of Egypt, the people could have a choice in their rulers.

Ahistorical?  The tectonic plates of history have shifted in the last six weeks.  Nothing is settled, but nothing will be the same.  Supporters of the President’s policies repeat over and over the litany of change, as if in a daze over such a vertiginous turning of the hinge of fate.  His political opponents sound uncertain whether to profess happiness or misery.  Parallels to the fall of the Berlin wall abound.  What is one to make of this?  More importantly, where do we go from here?

Skepticism is an option.  As of today, Iraq and Lebanon hang in the balance, Saudi Arabia and Egypt remain brutally oppressive regimes, and the prospects for peace between the Palestinians and Israel, while encouraging in the short term, must contend with a climate of mutual loathing and mistrust that justifies long-term pessimism.  We can take the European approach.  We just wait and see.

That would be a strategic blunder and a moral disaster.  The future is now in play; we must redouble the effort to steer it toward our ideals, or others will take it elsewhere.  In the Middle East, democrats are risking their lives partly because they have heard President Bush’s message, and expect the support of the United States.  To adopt a minimalist policy while the friends of freedom in the region are under attack would be shameful – the more so in that we have been here before, and failed in our duty.

But how can democracy bloom in such parched places?  President Bush predicates his policy on the universality of the desire for freedom.  “We have confidence,” he asserted, “because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul.”

The question is how to translate this longing into the moral transformation of an entire region of the world.  Democracy is bound up with specific habits of thought and action:  self-reliance, civic-mindedness, tolerance, rule of law.

The political aspect of this is probably least important, as it was historically the last to emerge.  In England, then in the U.S. and West Europe, classes that matched the elites in social and educational achievement, and often in wealth as well, broke through to political equality because they had the power and the will to do so.  That will not be the case in most of the Middle East.

There, the freedom policy confronts cultures based on command.  Again, I mean more by that than political despotism.  My sense is best conveyed by the old Spanish word for aristocracy, hidalgos, “sons of somebody.”  Because of the tribal and clan structure of Arab society, a very few sons of somebody are born to command, while the many are born to obey.

It is fascinating to trace the ancestries of the key political players in Iraq today.  Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the man likely to become the next prime minister, is a descendant of the prophet Muhammad; the Kurdish chieftain Massoud Barzani, a strong candidate for the presidency, essentially inherited his position from his father.  The Shia headmen, Sistani and al-Sadr – both sons of somebody, bearers of illustrious names.

The principles of democracy and aristocracy are not incompatible, but the mixture offends our American tastes.  We should be prepared.  If the freedom policy succeeds, the result will be more republican than democratic, and look more like the Britain of the younger Pitt than the America of the younger Bush.

The top-down nature of Arab cultures explains whatever appeal Baathism and theocratic Islam have had:  both are culture-destroying movements, which allow ruthless and violent “sons of nobody” to rise to the top of the heap.

Conversely, for democracy to function in the Middle East, no-names talented in peaceful pursuits must also be allowed to rise.  Freedom must become identified with opportunity if it is to replace compulsion as a moral ideal.  This raises a host of difficulties, of which the oppression of women is a notorious example.  Let me touch on the two that I find most pressing.

The first difficulty is economic.  I won’t cite statistics, since anyone interested can go to the 2002 “Arab Human Development Report.”  It makes grim reading; the economies of the entire Arab world are smaller than Spain’s and falling ever further behind the rest of the world.

The problem shouldn’t be framed in Marxist or materialist terms.  Its essence is Jeffersonian.  It is impossible for an economically dependent person to behave as an independent citizen.  It is unreasonable to expect the servant to look his master in the eye and claim equality of any sort.  Democracy demands a minimum of private prosperity, which in turn requires a maximum of opportunity in every walk of life.  The postwar Germans and Japanese, often cited as examples for Iraq to follow, built democracy on a material foundation laid by twin “economic miracles.”

What is the best way to foster growth?  Not being an economist, I won’t pretend to speak to the question.  But from a moral and political perspective, it seems clear that Arab economies must be shocked open, that oligarchical predations in the Russian style must be exposed and punished, and that Arab governments must be funded by taxation rather than oil revenues.  The freedom policy should promote these objectives.

The second difficulty is educational.  Rates of illiteracy in the Middle East hover above 40 percent.  This can be fixed within a generation, if the will and the proper means are found.  The U.S. can provide some of the will by throwing open its high schools and universities to Arabs from humble backgrounds, with a particular emphasis on women (who make up two-thirds of the illiterate population).  But the bulk of the work must be done locally, in public schools that foster an admiration for excellence rather than national grievances or religious zealotry.

Moral transformation as a foreign policy goal is, to put it mildly, an ambitious undertaking.  I have touched on a couple of the major difficulties.  Others come readily to mind – the ennervating dependency on oil money, for example.  None of this makes the freedom policy quixotic or naive.  Let’s remember Ronald Reagan, and his speech to Parliament.

In the past half-century or so, radical transformations have swept over war-ravaged Germany and Japan, dirt-poor Korea and Taiwan, the ex-dictatorships of Southern Europe and the ex-satellites of Eastern Europe; China and India are on the cusp.  It can happen in the Middle East.  It should happen – if we Americans manage to be as smart as we are ambitious.



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