Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Staying Allied with Democracies

cross-posted at Dagblog

There's an old chestnut that says that two democracies have never gone to war. It's not quite true, or only true if you aggressively redefine "democracy" until you've fallen into the "no-true-Scotsman" fallacy. ("No true democracy ever goes to war with another ...." ) But it is an instructive half-truth: functional democracies very rarely go to war with one another.

That general rule is important to think about this week, as the protests in Egypt bring out America's deep ambivalence toward democracy in the Middle East, or at least in the Muslim Middle East. Of course, we all officially want democracy, and most of us instinctively want it. Nobody feels entirely comfortable being against democracy. But on the other hand, many Americans are very uncomfortable with the kind of leaders and policies that Egyptians would choose if allowed to vote freely. This ambivalence is most painfully on display in the conflicting postures taken by American opposition politicians. (To be fair, the current Administration doesn't have the luxury of taking theoretical positions on this, because it actually has to figure out a practical way to cope with events as they unfold. The Administration's conflicted thinking gets expressed less directly than its critics'.) Some conservatives have been asserting that the protests in Egypt represent Bush's "democracy promotion" agenda in action, and fault President Obama for not supporting the protesters more loudly. On the other hand, some conservative critics of Obama have clearly decided that this is not a pro-democracy movement but instead "rioting" or "unrest," which we should view as a menace. Those critics are prone to muttering darkly about the Muslim Brotherhood and running down Mohammed ElBaradei's personal character. And of course, as Kevin Drum points out, a few confused conservatives do both.

Here's the core of the problem: Mubarak is in fact a tyrant, which we dislike, but he supports our general Middle East policies. The Egyptian populace finds our general Middle East policies intolerable and infuriating, and no Egyptian government that actually reflects the popular will is likely to go along with us the way Mubarak has.

Let me go back to the question of democracies avoiding wars with other democracies. I used to assume that wars between democracies were rare because it's harder to get a voting public behind a war; I figured that democratic electorates worked as a brake on belligerence, so that democratic governments were harder to provoke into war. If American politicians want to get voters sneering at France, it's pretty easy, but if they wanted to get us behind a military invasion of Marseilles, that would be a pretty hard sell. So I was thinking that democratic governments were more likely to tolerate provocations that might constitute casus belli, and allow more time for tensions to ease.

But this is clearly not the whole story. There are a few examples of patience in the face of provocation, such as South Korea's reluctance to attack North Korea, but that's mostly about military reality. And there are plenty of examples where advanced industrial democracies grab hold of a colorable pretext for war and refuse to let go. (The explosion of the USS Maine was all the reason American voters needed to get behind the Spanish-American War, and they didn't want to hear that might have been an accident. The public wanted a good reason to fight Spain.) And surely, the lower frequency of wars between democracies isn't about shared values or common dedication to democratic principles or holding hands and singing kumbaya. Advanced democracies declare wars all the time.

What you see in practice is not that democratic nations are slower to respond to military provocation, but that they're more reluctant to give provocation to another democratic country. Some of this is about the fact that other democratic countries tend to have advanced, industrialized militaries, but that's not the whole story. (You won't see the British or French hassling Belgium, and that's not because they dread the Belgian air force.) The advanced military powers treat democratic nations much more deferentially than they treat authoritarian nations. We commit military provocations against nations run by strongmen far more easily than we commit them against countries where real elections choose the leadership. Think of the various places where we've authorized air strikes over the last twenty years or so. How many of them would you consider democracies?

If you authorize predator drone strikes in a country where the voters are actually in charge, there are two very predictable results. First, the voters will hate you. Second, they will elect a government that hates you, and demand that that government actively oppose you. Nobody gets re-elected by backing foreign aerial bombardment of the homeland. Can you imagine? If Pakistan and Yemen were functioning democracies, we wouldn't be sending drones to destroy villages where jihadists might be hiding. Doing so would quickly bring the fall of any pro-American government and lead to the rise of an aggressively anti-American one, probably for a generation or two. There are jihadists lurking somewhere in Hamburg, too, but we're not sending predator drones or a Special Forces detachment after them. Everyone understands that if we did that we would be antagonizing the German people and that they would not get over it.

But when you're dealing with dictatorships, juntas, Communist oligarchies, and so on, you tend to count popular opinion out. After all, public sentiment can't replace the dictator, junta, or Politburo. Having the folks on the ground love or hate your country more than they did last year doesn't make any immediately apparent difference. It's natural to focus on how the people at the top respond to your actions. So, if you're having static with Muammar Qadhafi and you feel bombing some targets in Libya will get him in line, that seems like the logical course of action. Sure, the average Libyan might hate the US because of those strikes, maybe for a generation or so, but it's not like that changes anything in the short term. If Qadhafi takes his beating quietly and backs down, it looks like a satisfactory Libya policy. If Saddam Hussein attempts to have a former US President assassinated, you authorize an air strike on his intelligence headquarters in Baghdad. That works like a charm in terms of managing Saddam Hussein and his intelligence apparatus; they learned that specific lesson pretty well. How the rest of the citizens of Baghdad felt about having their city attacked by planes was beside the point as long as Hussein was in power. Their support wasn't any real help to us, and their resentment didn't hurt us. It wasn't like we needed them to vote for some hypothetical pro-American political party, right?

Even if your own country is a democracy, the demands of policy can easily lead you into viewing the people of a dictatorship through the dictator's eyes. He ignores what they want, so you do as well. You would never just ignore what the French or British or Canadian public wants, not completely, because the consequences of doing that are obvious. If you're dealing with a country where the people have a say, you pay attention to those people. If you're dealing with a country where only a few people have a say, you only pay attention to those few people. This approach works just fine, until it doesn't. When only Saddam Hussein made the decisions, taking out his radar installations every few weeks was a very useful tool for managing his behavior. Then one day you find you've committed yourself to free and fair elections in a country where large swaths of the public hate your guts and you're still fighting armed irregulars every day. That's when it turns out that Iraqi voters have been forming their personal opinions of the United States for a long, long time.

In the same way we feel freer to attack countries where the people can't vote, we feel freer to use military force in areas controlled by authoritarian allies. If the CIA wants to kidnap a jihadist off the street in Italy, and apparently they sometimes do, that has to be a clandestine operation because it's going to antagonize ordinary Italians. If the CIA wants to launch a missile strike at a target in Pakistan or Yemen, there's nothing clandestine about it. We make our deals with the Pakistani and Yemeni leadership, so it doesn't matter if the general population is upset. Until, of course, it does.

This is how we've gotten ourselves into this bind: decades of a Middle East policy that ignored what everyday Arabs wanted, no matter how badly they wanted it, because everyday Arabs didn't get a say. It's not that we didn't share the same views of Israel and Palestine that everyday Arabs did; you don't need absolute agreement to have a sane dialogue. It's that we utterly ignored everyone in the Arab street, because we were dealing with the guy in the palace. The various Arab sultans and generalissimos might have been willing to tolerate some of the uglier episodes in the ongoing Israel-Palestine debacle, because they were paid to tolerate it. The sultans and generalissimos might have gone along with the invasion of Iraq, because it was in their interests to go along. But the people on the street, the people who in any democracy would be the voters, weren't getting rewarded for going along with our policies. They were simply watching other Arabs die on the TV news. They didn't like it. They're not going to like it tomorrow, either.


danps said...

This is an absolutely brilliant post.

Found you via blogroll amnesty day.

Roger said...

Oh, boy. I like your post, and I find your argument interesting, worthy of thinking about, but you need to brush up on your history. In 1895, when McKinley decided to declare war on Spain, Spain was NOT a democracy. They were a monarchy and the remnants of an empire. we had wealthy businessmen wanted to seize, loot, and enslave Cuba. For their own good, of course. Just until the poor primitives were "ready" for some sort of self-government. Our imperialists, who were looking hungrily at China, wanted to seize, loot, and enslave the Philippines. For their own good, of course. William Randolph Hearst wanted to expand his influence in politics. It added up to making the decision easy.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Thanks for your comments, danps and Roger.

Roger, I'm well aware that Spain was not a democracy in the 1890s. (The Spanish-American War fits easily) My point was that the United States WAS a democracy, and being democratic didn't make us a whit less bloodthirsty.

It's part of the larger argument of the post: democracies aren't less likely to attack other countries, but other countries are less likely to attack democracies.

Thanks for commenting.