Democracy No!

Progressive support for democracy promotion and military intervention ignores our dismal history. A response to Rosa Brooks and Tom Perriello.

By David Rieff

Tagged DemocratizationHumanitarian Intervention

I have always thought George Santayana’s celebrated phrase that those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it to be one of the dumbest things ever said by a smart person. It assumes the past repeats itself, which hardly seems likely, and that the past can be understood by posterity as offering simple moral lessons—history as a kind of McGuffey’s Reader writ large—when in fact history is almost never morally binary, but rather bears out Walter Benjamin’s saturnine claim that every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism.

Still, reading both Rosa Brooks’s and Tom Perriello’s contributions to Democracy’s “America and the World” symposium [Issue #23], I found Santayana’s sentence coming unbidden to mind. For rarely have two pieces illustrated what might with only slight exaggeration be called the will to forget the past, and, as in so many of America’s foreign-policy follies, both the triumph of hope over (even recent) experience and the belief that this time America’s good intentions in fostering a global democratic order should matter far more than the actual history of U.S. actions from at least Woodrow Wilson’s day to George W. Bush’s.

To put the matter even more pointedly, after all the harm the United States has done in the Arab Middle East over the course of the past decade—not least, the comparatively unremarked fact that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein seems to have led not to democracy but to a world-historical tragedy that will be remembered long after Saddam and Bush have become footnotes: the end of Christianity in Iraq, one of the oldest loci of the faith—the only sensible thing to conclude is that in fact Washington is very bad at promoting democracy, and that, desirable as democracy doubtless is, its gift is not and therefore must not be asserted by influential policy intellectuals to be within America’s grace and favor. And so, though I have no doubts about either Brooks’s or Perriello’s moral seriousness, nor that the world they would like to see would be a far better one than that which we inhabit today, when I read two former members of the U.S. government calling not for an end to democracy promotion and humanitarian military interventions by the United States, but for better forms of both, I really do want to ask them: “Have you no shame?”

Because with regard to the American empire, there is much to be ashamed about. Obviously, progressive policy intellectuals like Brooks and Perriello (and their opposite numbers at places like the Truman National Security Project, The New Republic, and other like-minded venues, and in the work of writers like Anne-Marie Slaughter, to name the best rather than the worst of them) know perfectly well that America has committed many crimes in its history—as all empires before us have done, and presumably, after us, will do as well. Brooks in her piece dwells at some length on the historical flaws and faults of American democracy. But for some reason this knowledge doesn’t seem to chasten her and her intellectual cohort in the way that it should. After mentioning the genocide of the Native American peoples, slavery, etc., etc., and frankly acknowledging that America as premier global democracy promoter must, indeed, sound more than a little grotesque to any Latin American with the slightest familiarity with her region’s history, they return to their default position, which is that America’s mistakes of the past should not be allowed to impede America’s fundamental commitment to the liberal internationalist project, which is, at its core, about the instauration of democracy everywhere in the world where it has any chance of gaining a foothold.

How is one to account for this? How, pace Santayana, do the lessons of the past seem to weigh so little? An as-yet-unshaken allegiance to a certain liberal, enlightened version of American exceptionalism—one, to its credit, leached of its triumphalism, its xenophobia, and its bellicosity—is surely part of the explanation. American democracy may not be perfect (far from it); but democracy at least does allow a people to set things right if they’ve gone off the rails, as the history of the United States is supposed to demonstrate. Doubtless, what might be called America’s Great Gatsby complex—that is, the belief that our past mistakes should not limit our future possibilities—is another. As Fitzgerald put it, there are no second acts in American lives. And because we somehow are supposed to believe this self-serving, consoling rubbish, we have our moral guilt and our interventionism too.

This allows progressive internationalists to feel entitled to note, but not be impeded by, the inconvenient truth that virtually all major U.S. interventions—from Woodrow Wilson’s adventures in Mexico to the occupations in the Caribbean in the 1920s and 1930s; to the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh and Jacobo Arbenz in the 1950s; to Vietnam, and the dirty wars in Central America of the 1980s; and finally to the sanguinary folly of Iraq—were undertaken in the name of some form of democracy promotion or humanitarian or human-rights intervention. But this time it will be different, they insist! At least if done with—to use words both Brooks and Perriello emphasize—care, humility, and realism about what can and what cannot actually be achieved.

Curiously, the first part of both Brooks’s and Perriello’s pieces make a powerful case for such a disengagement. Brooks’s refusal to idealize democracy in the way cruder advocates of democracy promotion—Samantha Power springs instantly to mind—have so often done, her reminder of the blood that has been shed in the name of democracy, her acute sensitivities not just to the crimes and failings of the American past but to those that still mar the landscape of the American present as well, and her recognition of just how little, from a practical point of view, we actually know about which kinds of democracy promotion efforts work and which do not, could be read as a damning indictment of the whole project. But then Brooks makes a precipitous U-turn and asserts that democracy promotion should remain “a vital part” of American foreign policy, not because democracy “is perfect or because we are perfect, but because democracy remains the only political system yet devised that builds in a capacity for self-correction.” Elsewhere, Brooks calls democracy “the human fail-safe.”

Here we find ourselves lost deep in the dark forests of Fukuyamaland. Because once democracy becomes the default position of what nineteenth-century humanitarians called “the cause of humanity,” the political conversation is over, and the debate is demoted from whether—which should remain the real subject of the argument—to how. In this, Brooks is in the mainstream of the line of argument that liberals began to craft during the Bush years as an alternative to that Administration’s neoconservative Wilsonianism that sought a way not to throw out the global-democratic mission baby with the war-loving and American triumphalist bathwater. A particularly vulgar iteration of this view can be found in The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did) that the journalist James Traub published a few years ago. For Traub, it was simply a given that American security depended on the progress of freedom abroad. And because democracy had “become a near universal aspiration,” we in the United States “cannot choose” to be agnostic about it.

Brooks is smarter and subtler than that, at least, and keeps her categorical imperatives on something of a tight leash. But she still falls into the imperial trap of believing that it remains the prerogative of the United States to continue to put its heavy thumb on the global political scales to try to tip them toward democracy. To ask a question that is utterly absent from the mainstream debate in America (except, alas, for the egregious Ron Paul), what business is it of the United States to use its enormous power and, at times, its enormous military power to promote any political system on the rest of the world? Of course, advocates of democracy promotion will argue that we are not imposing anything, that people everywhere want democracy. But that is what advocates of empire have always said, and that history, which Brooks and Perriello seem so eager to dismiss, should give us pause.

There is something totalitarian in all this. For once one declares that democracy, for all its faults, is the highest form of contemporary political civilization, one is talking religion, not politics—and not just religion but monotheism at that. And the peril here is that, in such a narrative, anyone who does not jump on the democracy bandwagon is the secular equivalent of a heretic or a pirate—hostis humani generis, as the old description of pirates went: enemies of the human race. And with such enemies there can be no negotiation. They must go, or we must overthrow them—in the name of humanity, of course, and, per Perriello, according to the new humane codes of war making that we have now mastered. Improved operational capacities, Perriello instructs us, present “progressives with an opportunity—one that is too often seen as a curse—to expand the use of force to advance key values.” This claim is indistinguishable from Tony Blair’s 1999 declaration in his speech at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations that in the twenty-first century, the West would fight wars in the name of its values as well as its interests. Like Blair, Perriello is explicit on wanting more interventions, which in less Orwellian language means more wars. And Perriello trumpets the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi as the vindication of this worldview, even though it is anything but clear that regime change in Libya—let’s at least call things by their right names—will lead to a more democratic future in anything but formal terms. However, given the extent to which Brooks’s and Perriello’s arguments are now the conventional wisdom in Washington, our actions on “the shores of Tripoli” (the Marine Corps hymn; the most vulgar of Marxists couldn’t make this stuff up!) are only the overture to many more such expeditions “in the name of humanity.”

Let the buyer beware. If the debate about America continuing to promote democracy abroad is a practical one, then the practical reality is that actually, as Brooks herself concedes, following democracy theorist Thomas Carothers, we don’t really know what we are doing and rarely take into account with sufficient seriousness the unintended consequences of our actions. The Arab Spring, heralded by Brooks as the legitimation for the Obama Administration’s cautious moves away from realism and back toward more involvement in global democratization, should serve as a cautionary tale here. For it is by no means clear that the overthrow of Mubarak (or, indeed, the fall of Ben Ali, Saleh, and Gadhafi, and the possible overthrow of Assad in Syria) will lead to more decent societies in the Arab Middle East, nor that these democracies (for they are indeed that; Brooks is right there) controlled by Islamist parties will be more “self-correcting” than their predecessors.

If the debate is about American interests, then Brooks, Perriello, and those who share their view need to demonstrate why a democratic world order is necessary to the security of the United States. For despite the fact that this is so regularly claimed, it is anything but obvious. At the very least, there needs to be more consideration than democracy promotion advocates and partisans of humanitarian intervention have been willing to give of the costs as well as the benefits of the American project of fostering, to the extent it can do so prudently, a systematic, universal, global change of all political systems that are not yet democratic. That would require a commitment that is actually far more radical than regime changes in a few countries like Iraq or Afghanistan. Only the belief that in fact democracy is what the world wants already, and thus, morally speaking, we are pushing on an open door, could justify such a swollen ambition.

We have been down this road before, and its name is empire. If they follow Brooks and Perriello, American policy-makers will most likely declare our actions to be taken in the name of human rights, rather than what the French empire called France’s “civilizing mission,” or what Kipling called “The White Man’s Burden.” But at the risk of sounding like Gertrude Stein, an empire is an empire is an empire. At this point in history, surely it is time to consider instead whether the moral thing for us to do would be to stand down rather than double down.

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David Rieff is a New York-based writer and journalist. He is currently finishing a book on the global food crisis.

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