We Can't Force Democracy
Creating Normality Is the Real Mideast Challenge

By Robert D. Kaplan
Thursday, March 2, 2006

The whiff of incipient anarchy in Iraq in recent days has provided a prospect so terrifying as to concentrate the minds of Republicans and Democrats, Iraq's sectarian political factions, and even the media. Staring over the abyss, only the irresponsible few appear distracted by partisan advantage. In that sense alone, the bombing of the golden dome in Samarra may serve a useful purpose. For the fundamental nightmare of the new century is the breakdown of order, something that the American experience offers precious little wisdom in dealing with.

President Bush has posited that the American experience with democracy is urgently useful to the wider world. True, but there is another side of the coin: that America basically inherited its institutions from the Anglo-Saxon tradition and thus its experience over 230 years has been about limiting despotic power rather than creating power from scratch. Because order is something we've taken for granted, anarchy is not something we've feared. But in many parts of the world, the experience has been the opposite, and so is the challenge: how to create legitimate, functioning institutions in utterly barren landscapes.

"[B]efore the names of Just and Unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power," Thomas Hobbes wrote in "Leviathan." Without something or somebody to monopolize the use of force and decide right from wrong, no man is safe from another and there can be no freedom for anyone. Physical security remains the primary human freedom. And so the fact that a state is despotic does not necessarily make it immoral. That is the essential fact of the Middle East that those intent on enforcing democracy abroad forget.

For the average person who just wants to walk the streets without being brutalized or blown up by criminal gangs, a despotic state that can protect him is more moral and far more useful than a democratic one that cannot. Monarchy was the preferred political ideal for centuries, writes the late University of Chicago scholar Marshall Hodgson, precisely because the monarch's legitimacy -- coming as it did from God -- was seen as so beyond reproach that he could afford to be benevolent, while still monopolizing the use of force. To wit, the most moderate and enlightened states in the Middle East in recent decades have tended to be those ruled by royal families whose longevity has conferred legitimacy: Morocco, Jordan, the Gulf emirates and even Egypt, if one accepts that Hosni Mubarak is merely the latest in a line of Nasserite pharaohs.

Imperfect these rulers clearly are, but to think that who would follow them would necessarily be as stable, or as enlightened, is to engage in the kind of speculation that leads to irresponsible foreign policy. Recall that those who cheered in 1979 at the demise of the shah of Iran got something worse in return. The Saudi Arabian royal family may be the most reactionary group to run that country, except for any other that might replace it. It is unclear what, if anything, besides the monarchy could hold such a geographically ill-defined country together.

In the case of Iraq, the state under Saddam Hussein was so cruel and oppressive it bore little relationship to all these other dictatorships. Because under Hussein anybody could and in fact did disappear in the middle of the night and was tortured in the most horrific manner, the Baathist state constituted a form of anarchy masquerading as tyranny. The decision to remove him was defensible, while not providential. The portrait of Iraq that has emerged since his fall reveals him as the Hobbesian nemesis who may have kept in check an even greater anarchy than the kind that obtained under his rule.

The lesson to take away is that where it involves other despotic regimes in the region -- none of which is nearly as despotic as Hussein's -- the last thing we should do is actively precipitate their demise. The more organically they evolve and dissolve, the less likely it is that blood will flow. That goes especially for Syria and Pakistan, both of which could be Muslim Yugoslavias in the making, with regionally based ethnic groups that have a history of dislike for each other. The neoconservative yearning to topple Bashar al-Assad, and the liberal one to undermine Pervez Musharraf, are equally adventurous.

Afghanistan falls into none of these categories. We toppled a movement in Afghanistan, the Taliban, but we did not topple a state, because none had really existed there. Even at the high-water mark of central control in Afghanistan in the mid-20th century, the state barely functioned beyond the major cities and the ring road connecting them. The governing self-sufficiency of Afghan villages has been a factor helping President Hamid Karzai establish a legitimate, noncoercive order.

Globalization and other dynamic forces will continue to rid the world of dictatorships. Political change is nothing we need to force upon people; it's something that will happen anyway. What we have to work toward -- for which peoples with historical experiences different from ours will be grateful -- is not democracy but normality. Stabilizing newly democratic regimes, and easing the development path of undemocratic ones, should be the goal for our military and diplomatic establishments. The more cautious we are in a world already in the throes of tumultuous upheaval, the more we'll achieve.

The writer is a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and author of "The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War."

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