A cogent point

Owen Harries writes in the American Conservative: To the critics, the belief that democratic institutions, behavior, and ways of thought can be exported and transplanted to societies that have no experience of them is profoundly mistaken. While the United States can provide an example to emulate, democracy is not a commodity that can be exported, or a gift that can be bestowed. To be viable, political institutions and political cultures require a long, organic, indigenous growth, and to attempt from without a sudden dislocation of what exists is more likely to produce unintended consequences than intended ones.

Supporters of the policy tend to regard all this as defeatist, an elaborate rationalization for doing nothing. Liberty, they assert, is a universal value, every society and culture desires it. To work for its realization through democratic institutions is not to impose anything, but merely to remove impediments and to render assistance in a learning process.

In terms of achievability, the trump cards in the hands of those who favor the policy and usually the first cards played are the examples of post-World War II Germany and Japan. But neither is particularly valid or relevant. The German and Japanese peoples were utterly defeated and crushed at the end of that conflict, and there were no surviving institutions or centers of opposition. In Iraq today the population is considered liberated, not defeated and deprived of rights. Second, Germany and Japan in 1945 were genuine nation states with homogenous populations and a strong sense of identity. This is true of few of the possible candidates for democratization today. Most of the states of the Middle East are artificial creations, arbitrarily carved out by Western powers. Third, and most important, before falling into the hands of extremist regimes, both Germany and Japan had considerable experience of the rule of law and civil society, as well as some significant experience of democratic practice. They had well-educated populations and substantial middle classes. Again, none of this is true of most of the targeted states today.

Another American experience seems much more relevant. Long before the United States became a global hegemon, it was a regional hegemon in the Caribbean. From the end of the 19th century it dominated the region and intervened as it saw fit. It occupied Haiti for 19 years, Nicaragua for even longer. Yet to this day the region has not produced one genuine, stable democracy. Nor was the United States to lay the foundations for a viable democracy during the three decades that it ruled the Philippines.

I submit that we’re far less likely to succeed in creating viable “democracy” in Iraq than we have been in Haiti. It was a bad idea from the start, a fact which is becoming increasingly obvious even to the administration’s allies and cheerleaders. History is not an inevitable force, but one ignores it at one’s peril. Drawing the correct historical analogies is always an imperative.