Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The flying purple finger of fate

Sectarian mass murder in Iraq, factional fighting in Palestine, a bloody stand off in Lebanon—what do all of these horrific stories have in common?

Yes, that’s right, Democracy.

Or, more accurately, the Bush foreign policy model of Democracy, something Steve Clemons credits Richard Haass as dubbing “ballotocracy.” This model, the insistence on the trappings of a plebiscite without the infrastructure, institutions, laws, or, most importantly, codified guarantees of civil, political, and minority rights, favors sectarian division and older organized structures instead of fostering a truly plural, democratic society.

Here’s how Philip Stephens of the Financial Times (registration required) put it last year:

The mistake was to see democracy almost exclusively through the lens of elections: to assume the act of voting was what mattered.

Well, it does matter, of course. But elections are not a sufficient condition. The rule of law, an independent judiciary, a strong civil society, political parties, a free press and the habit of participation are also vital pillars. Building them takes time and painstaking effort. Without them elections may legitimise populist autocrats. The cross on the ballot paper, in other words, may be nearer the end than the beginning of democratic state-building.

How little taking the time and making the effort mattered, indeed, how little forming such a democratic society ever much mattered to the Bush Administration was never really in doubt, but grows increasingly clear as the Middle East rips itself apart. This month’s half-assed and half-baked rush to bolster Abu Mazen, like last year’s logistical aid and diplomatic fumble in the service of Israel’s move on Lebanon, treats the citizens of the region as lab rats in the neocon’s fantasy Habitrail. The daily disasters that define the Iraqi experience have American leaders practically begging for a strongman to just impose some form of order. (The Bush mistake of cozying up to dictatorial Pakistani “President” Pervez Musharraf is outside the self-imposed boundaries of this little exposé, but would serve as another good example of the administration's choosing expedience over statecraft.)

Washington’s demands for early elections in Palestine were answered with a Hamas majority in the Palestinian Authority parliament. The US push for Lebanese “sovereignty” gave us the shakiest of pro-American governments, a resurgence of factional tension, and a Hezbollah that has grown in influence and stature. And White House insistence on Iraqi elections so soon after the invasion, the destruction of Iraqi infrastructure, the disbanding of the Iraqi military, and before so many constitutional and institutional details were sorted out, gave the country a lot of inky fingers and increasingly bloody Shiite mob rule.

But setting up structures and infrastructures, negotiating peace treaties and power sharing, writing constitutions and laws—all of that takes time and money and often results in, shall we say, nuanced success stories.

None of that, of course was (or is) of any interest to a greedy and vainglorious Bush Administration hell bent on rewarding corporate cronies and consolidating domestic power. The image of a bunch of senators and representatives (and other assorted dignitaries and invited guests) waving purple fingers at a nationally televised State of the Union was infinitely more important to the Bush team than a functioning and fair democracy in Iraq. Saber rattling and fear mongering in the service of the permanent national security crisis is more satisfying for the White House than the high-stakes diplomacy required for a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement.

Unfortunately, the result of all this democracy talk without democratizing action is—in addition to the chaos and bloodshed—the complete discrediting of democracy itself. People in these countries and nation states are weary and cynical, potential leaders, even if they are progressives, are afraid to call themselves democrats for fear of being linked with America’s failed policies. Civilians see the ballot as a tool used by authoritarian leaders to legitimize the status quo rather than a tool of their own that can be used to effect change.

But, of course, upon only the shortest reflection, this comes as no surprise. After all, why should a government that has shown little respect for democratic structures and institutions at home exhibit any greater appreciation abroad?

(cross-posted to Daily Kos)

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