Across the Bay

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Iraqi Democracy and other Mundane Affairs

In what could almost serve as a response to Michael Young's criticism of US micromanagement, David Brooks analyzed President Bush's speech yesterday and addressed the need of letting the Iraqis take control of running their own affairs:

"It is only through the mundane acts of democratic citizenship that Iraqis will be able to build a civil society. It is only through self-government that Iraq can become secure."

But perhaps the most important thing that Brooks said is this comment:

"It's a huge gamble to think that the solution to chaos is liberty. But it's fitting that during the gravest crisis of his presidency, President Bush reverted to his most fundamental political belief. He began this war in Iraq repeating the sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence, that our creator has endowed all human beings with the right to liberty, and the ability to function as democratic citizens. He said last night with absolute confidence that the Iraqis are democrats at heart." (Emphasis added)

The biggest danger facing the project in Iraq was for the US to buy into the DoS/CIA (and the rest of the world!) position that stability (their conception of stability) is the main objective. What that means is putting civil liberties and democratic self-governance in the back seat and allowing for the emergence of a democratically enclined "soft-dictator," or worse yet, a "strongman," as King Abdullah of Jordan recently recommended! What that would do is basically take us back to square one, conforming Iraq to the miserable plateau of the ME, which is ornate with such "strongmen."

Another interesting twist is the tying of such a enterprise with a characteristically American ideal, one that includes reference to God-given rights. Far from understanding this in religious terms, I saw this as a re-interpretation of an old American phenomenon, what Robert Kaplan called "the missionary-Arabist." (The Arabists, p. 8)

Kaplan's point was to distinguish between the British Arabists and their American counterparts. He noted that the driving force behind the British Arabists was British imperialism, whereas "mission work defines the American Arabist" since American Arabists were originally missionaries. (ibid.)

"Truly there are few social species as authentically American as the missionary and, by extension, the missionary-Arabist: a person concerned less with political power than with the doing of good deeds in order to improve the world and to be loved by less-fortunate others. The British sought to dominate, to acquire a culture and a terrain as one acquires a rare and beautiful book. But Americans... sought to change this terrain, to improve upon it, using their own model. They manifested a psychology that grew out of the American Revolution..." (pp.8-9, emphasis added)

In many ways, Brooks' (and Bush's) point attempts to recapture that (what people have called Wilsonialism). Unfortunately, the old Arabists ended up at the opposite end of this ideal. As Francis Fukuyama remarked (in Kaplan's book):

""[Arabists] have been more systemically wrong than any other area specialists in the diplomatic core. This is because Arabists not only take on the cause of the Arabs, but also the Arabs' tendency for self-delusion."" (Emphasis added)

That remark should be qualified. It is better to substitute the "cause of the Arabs" with the "cause of Arab nationalism" and the self-delusions that ensue from that deadly ideology. That's why I said that Brooks' (and Bush's) remarks are a re-interpretation, or a recapturing, of the initial ideal before it fell under the influence of Arab nationalism. And this particular American model (that can no longer be claimed by the DoS) seeks the freedom and improvement of Arabs, but free from Arab nationalist delusions, or the insulting contempt of many an anti-war European, or "Arabist" American academics.