Day By Day

Saturday, February 26, 2005

An Alternate Perspective

Martin Kramer, speaking at a conference at Tel Aviv University, offered a perceptive and much-needed critique of Bush's freedom imperative titled "Mr. Sharansky, ease my doubts."

He starts by asking, "Why Tyranny?" Why should the Middle East be mired in tyranny when other major regions of the world were making great strides toward democracy?

He rejects the anti-imperialist left-wing argument, advanced by Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Tariq Ali, that the West, and especially the United States were responsible for installing and maintaining dictatorships throughout the region, observing that tyrannical regimes, far from being dependent upon western support have persisted despite overwhelming western opposition. Instead he offers a complex explanation:
If I had to draw up a list of causes [for the persistence of tyranny], I would start with the patriarchal social order, which venerates strong authority figures and marginalizes women; the primacy of kinship, tribalism, and sectarianism, which blocks the growth of civil society; oil, which concentrates wealth in the hands of rulers and discourages productive work; and bad memories of past attempts at constitutionalism, which ended in failure.

He disputes the idea that tyrannical regimes can be overthrown by an application of economic sanctions or political pressures short of war. He writes:
Regimes do not fall for domestic reasons, whether they are pro-Western or anti Western, whether they trade everything with the West or languish under sanctions. This is because survival does not depend on outside support. It depends on inside support. Some of that is the result of fear, but it is not just fear of the ruler; it is fear of the foreigner, of the neighbor, of the political, social and cultural chaos that might accompany change.

He also disputes the idea that most people throughout the region want "freedom" in the western sense of the word. "Relatively few" people, he writes,
are liberals who want freedom as we would understand it—freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of religion, all belonging to the autonomous individual.

Instead most inhabitants of the Middle East want a different kind of freedom which he calls, "freedom from."

"Their idea of freedom" he writes, "is freedom from oppressive government, not so much for the individual, as for the collective—the kinship group, the tribe, the religious sect."

He explains the consequence of this tribal way of thinking:
You may desire freedom from oppressive government, and still deny your beautiful wife the freedom to drive, or get an education, or go about in public. You may fervently wish not to know government, but still expect blasphemers and adulteresses to be punished by law. You may fight for freedom from oppression for yourself, and not much care if your neighbor is oppressed, especially if he is from a different family, or tribe, or sect.

He does not see any easy way to get from this tribalism to a western style civic culture in which individual rights are enshrined. Islamism certainly does not point in that direction. It would substitute for submission to tyranny a different kind of submission -- to God and God's Law. Islamist regimes are not a way-station to western individualist democracy -- they are its enemies. He points out that Islamism has far greater appeal in the Middle East than does western liberalism.

Kramer therefore rejects the idea that there will be a general liberalization of political cultures throughout the region. He admits that in some few places the conditions would support the growth of liberalism, but for most of the Middle East pressing for democracy could actually inflict harm and strengthen Islamism. Therefore we must not be indiscriminate. We must pick and choose our battles carefully and not expect a general culture shift. Moreover, if we are at war throughout the region, and he thinks we are, we will need to make compromises with tyrannical regimes in order to prevail.

First things first, he warns:
We have to be careful not to undermine [the tyrannies], before we have defeated our greater enemies. After all, we do not want to become unwitting agents of Osama bin Laden, destroying the existing order he failed to destroy, merely to open the route to power for his admirers and fellow travellers.

Professor Kramer has presented here a powerful and important critique of Bush's freedom imperative, one for which I have heard no detailed or persuasive answer. I don't know if he's right. I certainly hope that he isn't. In the long run I don't think that Islamism can compete with western liberalism, but we must be prepared to experience short-term reversals, perhaps many of them. President Bush has already indicated that he understands this, even if many of his supporters do not and has manifested sufficient courage and steadfastness of purpose to hold his course in the face of adversity. The question is, who will stand with him when the inevitable reverses come? Far too few, I fear.


Chase said...

I, for one, don't think he is right on several points. I think if you make sure those people live in that western style freedom, whether they recognize it as the best gee golly gosh thing ever or not, the collectivist tendencies and their results (such as the wife abuse) will diminish greatly. Take racism in America: so long as the freedom of a race was sub-par, the hate thrived. Or take Germany: in an environment where an internal locus of control is taken away by a complex welfare state, personal failures are more likely to be externally described. Thus we see Neo-Nazis still being elected to regional and occassionaly the national parliament.

In freedom, everything progresses.

D. B. Light said...

I hope you are right, but those collective forms of identity have functioned for millenia in that region and won't easily be eradicated. It will be a long haul with lots of reverses, but the public seems to think it will be a quick fix. Also, by forcing people to be free we are setting ourselves up for blame by those who find freedom threatening or who lose power and status in the new regime.