Sunday, February 05, 2006

Democracy, Human Rights, And Peace: Lessons From Our Own History

This piece is an extension of last week’s piece on the collective irrationality that has gripped America ever since the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Putting aside the Bush Administration’s fear-mongering, deceptive use of information, secrecy, and all around incompetency in executing its foreign policy goals, I want to look at the fundamental premise that bringing democracy to the Middle East will decrease the terrorist threat to America.

On paper, the idea appears to have some merit. If we suppose that much of the anger in the Arab world is an outgrowth of the repressive authoritarian regimes that restrict freedom and have denied material progress to much of the Middle East then democracy and open societies might be the antidote. Of course, much of the anger (at least directed to the U.S.) is also due to a conflation of factors having to do with real and/or perceived historical actions by the U.S. against the interests of many Arab nations (e.g. the CIA’s overthrow of Mossadeq in Iran, our support of Saddam Hussein in the 1980sas well as supplying him with chemical weapons used on Iranians – , our support for the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) as well as our continued support of Israel and our perceived bias against the Palestinians.

Again putting aside the morality or wisdom of bringing democracy by military force to the Middle East, I want to delve into something even more fundamental: whether democracy is necessarily conducive to human rights and a more peaceful society. And there is no better place to start than with our own history.

Paradoxically, the American democratic experiment, with its commitment to individual liberty, began in the late 18th century when the slave trade was at its peak. Since Africans were not considered fully human it was easy for our founders to deny liberty to millions of blacks. In addition, women were given few rights in our new democratic experiment and brutal suppression and extermination of the Native Americans continued almost unabated throughout much of the 19th century. It is clear from these events that democracy, at least in its infancy and by earlier historical standards, can coexist alongside some of the world’s greatest atrocities.

Many argue (rightly to some extent) that it is problematic to judge people hundreds of years ago with the same moral lens that we have today. The fact that our republic was founded by people who were themselves slave owners for much of their lives, or who didn’t believe women should have the right to vote, does not diminish their astounding political accomplishments. But it does cast doubt on the premise that democracy in and of itself is necessarily consistent with human rights and peaceful societies.

In fact, the American subjugation of blacks continued in many parts of our nation for almost 200 years. My own parents grew up in America at a time when the South was segregated and blacks were routinely brutally murdered for nothing more than looking at a white person the wrong way or trying to exercise their democratic rights (even though the intensity of lynching decrease in the early to mid 20th century). In many parts of our great democratic nation domestic terrorist organizations with a worldview just as hideous as the Islamofascists (i.e. the KKK) reined for decade after decade, and the murder statistics don’t do justice to the intense suffering and fear these groups (and individuals) inflicted on millions of our own fellow American citizens. While all of these facts are common knowledge to most Americans, it is truly astounding to recognize that our democratic system based on liberty and freedom not only tolerated such psychopathic behavior for almost two centuries, but that many in our political establishment condoned it. As I have mentioned before, Democratic support in the South for Jim Crow and institutionalized brutality is a titanic shame that will always stain the Democratic Party.

But more importantly, our history puts firmly to rest any notion that democracy automatically leads to the promotion of human rights and peace, at least within the short-term. Sadly, majorities in democracies can easily use their power to oppress minorities and continue doing so for very long periods of time. We even see this practice continue today in America with the oppression of gays that is being institutionalized around the country (I am referring to the bans on not only gay marriage but even civil unions which have characterized most of the anti-gay legislation around the country).

It is clear that human rights, while no doubt easier to achieve in democratic societies, require much more than open societies and the right to vote.

As to the supposition that democratic nations do not incite wars of aggression this too is historically inaccurate. Hitler and the Nazis had widespread popular support in Germany and came to power through democratic means, and in addition to the imperialistic wars and conquests led by the democratic nations of Europe, America’s involvement in the Spanish-American War was also based on imperialistic motives. The Vietnam War was initiated based on false pretenses in the Gulf of Tonkin, and we overthrew the democratically-elected in Guatemala in the 1950s.

My point is not to insinuate the democracy is an unworthy goal (it is) or to excessively criticize the history of U.S. foreign policy, but to dispel the notion that somehow bringing democracy to the Middle East will greatly reduce the terrorist threat. By simply looking at our own history (as well as other historical examples), it is clear that democracies in the Middle East could easily thrive in conjunction with strongly anti-U.S. policies, terrorists, and all sorts of homegrown forms of oppression (the Iranian and Palestinian elections support this). And my guess is that bringing democracy by force to such a volatile region might very well magnify the chaotic and unpredictable forces that are unleashed when people experience greater individual freedom after centuries of abuse (e.g. there are lots of scores to settle).

In summary, there is little support for the core assumption underlying Bush’s primary foreign policy objective that bringing democracy to Iraq will decrease the threat of terrorism. Supporting democratic movements is a noble goal, but unless it is coupled with the promotion of human rights, economic integration, and international cooperation it is unlikely to translate into the establishment of peaceful and friendly allies that respect human rights. Bush’s policy has emphasized the democracy angle largely at the expense of these other dimensions and this is a recipe for disaster.


P.S. I think the recent events surrounding the Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons of Mohammed are a perfect example of the unique irrationality and danger that religion poses in the world. Can someone imagine any non-religious cartoon in a small European newspaper that could’ve provoked people around the world to weeks of violent fury? To think that some religions inculcates people with such insecurity and fanaticism that their entire worldview is threatened by a little satire (regardless of whether it is perceived as offensive or not) is truly terrifying.


Return to Top