Day By Day

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Rise of Democracy, in Iraq and the United States

Today we were out and about in the mountains. Not much opportunity for bloggery. "She" has just gotten off the phone so I can, at last, get online.

We had sort of a nothing weekend. We were at the Harbor and snowstorms blanketed the region. Of course the media went nuts with breathless reports of the monster storm and the people it victimized. Funny, just a week earlier they had been issuing breathless reports of the warmest winter ever and the impending catastrophe of global warming it portended. That kind of silly talk must have teed off Mother Nature because she immediately sent the overnight temperature down into the teens, (single figures in the mountains) and dumped a big load of snow on the entire Northeast.

What it meant for us, though, was that the Harbor was almost completely deserted. I went out along the north shore Sunday afternoon. Many of the shops and restaurants were closed. No street performers. No surging crowds of tourists. Lots of gulls, though. At times I felt like I was on the set of a Hitchcock movie. Occasionally you would see a lone figure wandering through the shopping pavilions, or a family of Asian tourists wandering along the esplanade wondering where everyone had gone, and why the Harbor didn’t live up to the hype in travel folders.

Eventually I wandered into the Barnes & Nobel Superstore and there I found people. The Starbucks on the second floor was packed. What’s more, the lone electrical outlet [cleverly hidden behind a large trash receptacle – you’ve gotta be a local to know things like that] was right next to the only empty table. Aha!

I piled some clothes on the table to reserve it, wandered back into the stacks, got a couple of books and a journal to skim through, bought some coffee, got out the computer and settled down for a couple hours of casual reading and people watching.

The Rise of Democracy in America and the Middle East

The first book I glanced through was Sean Wilentz’ The Rise of American Democracy, Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: Norton, 2005). [here] It is not his best effort, and there are many points I would dispute, but early on I encountered a brief passage that set my mind to wandering [A problem I seem to have with many history books; if competently done they stimulate mental associations rather than dismissive snorts]. Anyhow, Sean wrote:

Democracy is never a gift bestowed by benevolent, farseeing rulers who seek to reinforce their own legitimacy. It must always be fought for, by political coalitions that cut across distinctions of wealth, power and interest. It succeeds and survives only when it is rooted in the lives and expectations of its citizens, and continually reinvigorated in each generation. Democratic successes are never irreversible. (Preface, p. xix)

Thus he throws down his gauntlet. In this short passage he:
Disputes the “cult of the founders” that informs so much of our current political dialogue. The 1789 Federal Constitution did not establish a particularly democratic system of government and the transformation of a Machiavellian “republic” into a popular democracy, he reminds us, was the work of many generations of reformers.
Sets up his later attempt to restore Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson to their rightful place in the Democrat pantheon. In this age of identity politics [and historiography] both men have taken a lot of lumps. Jefferson is now associated in the public mind with nothing more than a hypothesized affair with a slave woman, and Jackson is remembered mostly as an Indian killer. Neither image does justice to what were arguably two of America’s greatest figures. Their contributions to our democratic traditions will lie at the core of Sean argument.

3) Takes a gratuitous swipe at the Bush administration’s Middle East policy. Impressive, a three-fer, but here I think he missed his mark.

In fact, the quoted passage serves as a reasonable description of Bush’s strategic vision for Iraq and its neighbors. The idea, critics’ assumptions to the contrary, is not to “bestow” democracy on a passive population, but to create conditions in which democratic forces can emerge and fight to create authentic indigenous democratic institutions and traditions. As Bush puts it, “as they stand up, we will stand down.”

An imposed democracy, as countless critics have pointed out, would lack legitimacy. What they fail to understand is that Bush knows this. Those who long advocated “more boots on the ground” so that we could secure the country and hand it over to a puppet government didn’t understand that we are waging, not a war of empire, but one of liberation. In the end, as Bush has repeated over and over, it is the democratically elected representatives of the Iraqi people who will have to defeat or accommodate the insurgency and restore order throughout the nation. Democracy, in Wilentz’ words, “must always be fought for.”

And as for those who despair that democratic mechanisms have not produced a Mideast Switzerland, Bush has constantly reiterated his determination that the democratic regimes that emerge in the Middle East must be rooted in their indigenous cultures and experience. Or, to put it in Sean’s words – democracy “will succeed and survive only if it is rooted in the lives and experiences of its citizens”.

And finally, Sean reminds us that democratic gains “are never irreversible.” Many of Bush’s critics want us to cut and run, saying that we have done all we could reasonably be expected to do for the Iraqi people. But, as Bush has insisted all along, the democratization of Iraq and of the Middle East is the work of generations, a task no less daunting than that facing us at the onset of the Cold War. And, to leave the job half done would be to imperil the entire democratic enterprise throughout the world.

In this regard we must understand that it is no longer possible to insulate ourselves from the larger world, its problems and its perils. The 9/11 attacks should have made that clear – indeed it did to most responsible Americans. What is more, slowly but surely, recent troubles like the French riots and the cartoon controversy are awakening complacent Europeans to the threat. Anti-democratic and anti-liberal forces are not quiescent. They are aggressively expanding and cannot be ignored. As John Lewis Gaddis has recently reminded us [here], the response of the early American republic to anti-democratic threats was pre-emptive action aimed at spreading and securing democratic institutions and values on, and even far beyond, our borders. Now, when American, and indeed Western, liberalism again faces determined and aggressive threats, strong and sustained pre-emptive action is every bit as justified as it was in the early days of the Republic.

It must pain him to be told so, but Sean Wilentz has inadvertently produced a compelling reminder of just what is at stake in these troubled times, and clearly demonstrates that the current administration, far more than its numerous critics, understands both the promise and the perils of our current situation.

No comments: