There is little else clearer in today’s politics than the fact that what we have encouraged, supported, and even fought and died for in the Middle East are not liberal democracies. Women, secularists, and Christians are increasingly harassed, and even within the predominant regional culture itself we see smaller Islamic, tribal, and ethnic minorities persecuted every day. Our notion that the overthrow of autocracy and the coming of democracy meant also the coming of freedom was simply wrong. Yes, we neoconservatives could point to the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet hegemony, or liberal democracy-building in Germany and Japan after World War II, or even the wonderful success of the civil rights movement here in America to prove that all peoples wish to live in freedom. Yet those examples seem not to carry us to the facts that we see around us today.
But why? “Don’t all people yearn for freedom?” we have asked. And we assume the answer is yes. But the answer is no. Some people, perhaps most people, prefer other goods. Indeed, some people would rather be holy than free, or safe than free, or be instructed in how they should lead their lives rather than be free. Many prefer the comfort of strong answers already given rather than the openness and hazards of freedom. There are those who would never dream of substituting their will for the imam’s or pushing their desires over the customs and traditions of their families. Some men kiss their chains.
This is taken from a strong mea culpa written by John Agresto in the latest issue of Commentary magazine (I will quote liberally from the article in this post as it is only available to subscribers). Mr. Agresto can speak from serious experience as he served as senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in the year following the liberation of Iraq and has subsequently been a founding member of the board of trustees, provost, acting chancellor, and dean of the faculty at the American University of Iraq, in Kurdish Iraq. According to Commentary, his book Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions (Encounter) contains the beginnings of this analysis that appears in the article.
The question for us today, especially for those of us like me who generally supported our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq to promote democracy (or to build consenual government, as Victor Davis Hanson likes to say*), is whether or not this was a fool's errand and the U.S. should have simply punished those responisble for 9/11, removed the threat to our security, and then installed some sort of local strongman with a warning to everyone that we'd do it again only worse if something like 9/11 happened again. More rubble, less trouble.
[Indeed, even if we had wanted to rule Afghanistan and/or Iraq in an imperial fashion, there are those who argued that a more forceful posture with the natives would have yielded better results for the U.S (well, I really don't know how many foreign policy 'experts' argued this, but I do know our old 'friend' Mencius Moldbug did -- check him out in the comments of this thread where he talks about "Pink's War"**).]
But either way, Agresto raises the question, explored often on this blog, of whether or not there is a cultural problem in the Middle-East, brough on by Islam, that simply precludes any simple democratization project or even any long-term colonization project:
But if half the problem is political, the other, and far more bedeviling, half is cultural. We political scientists have something of a professional fiction. We think that the type of government people live under shapes their culture. Indeed, we believe that political life shapes human character. So, we think that aristocracies produce people with aristocratic desires, that tyrannies produce a culture of fear and dependency with slavish or vicious subjects, and that democracies produce people who are peaceful, and understanding of difference. But this might simply be backwards. I was always struck by Alexis de Tocqueville’s comment that Americans were on the way to being a democratic people long before establishing a democratic government. We served on colonial juries where we listened to both sides before we rendered judgment on our fellow citizens. We had professional, civic, and social institutions that taught us how to work together. We fought the Revolutionary War against the British Crown, a war in which perhaps a third of our citizens were on the British side and yet after the war there were no show trials, no recriminations, no mass graves. To do it the other way around—to begin with a democratic government and hope for a people with a democratic outlook and habits to grow as a result—is more often than not a fool’s errand.
The left, which speaks often about the importance of diversity, multiculturalism, and culture, should understand this matter better than the right does. Yet, while liberals may claim to see the formative nature of culture, they rarely go beyond superficialities. Sometimes the remnants of a lazy Marxism take over, giving the left the handy but false excuse that poverty, joblessness, or capitalist exploitation cause tumult and war. The left, it seems, would rather have us celebrate other cultures than understand them, for understanding them might lead us to judging, or even opposing, them. Above all, despite their attachment to the virtues of multiculturalism, rarely will the left admit that culture—especially religious culture—shapes a nation and shapes a people’s character.
Yet it is the character of a culture that shapes the aspirations of its citizens and the nature of its democracy. A culture in which there is little religious or intellectual freedom, where adherence to the commands of imams or religious scholars is sacrosanct, a culture that believes its duty before God is to punish dissent, kill apostates, and exterminate God’s supposed enemies, a culture in which there is no deep acceptance of difference—such cultures will produce illiberal souls who are hardly strong candidates to form a truly liberal and free democracy.
Nor is the right without fault in this matter. Neoconservatives especially, with their insistence on the universality of human nature and human desires and the secondary character of culture, fail to see the true centrality of culture in shaping human life. All too often we rail against multiculturalism and proclaim that the important thing to know is that all men share a common human nature. We are the first to proclaim that just as fire burns in Hellas as it does in Persia, so is it true that human beings are the same, deep down, the world over.
But culture and custom are, as Pascal wrote in Pensées, “a second nature.” Culture is not just something that affects how we dress and what we eat and how we look at the world. It is something with the force of human nature itself. Culture—especially, today, religious culture—determines a people’s outlook and aspirations, what it holds to be just and what it holds to be dishonorable.
While conservatives may be correct in saying that justice and rights are universal and that good and evil are independent of historical circumstance or of any person’s cultural outlook, the fact remains that what a person believes is just and unjust—and what leads him to act is always shaped more by his culture than by the truth objectively understood. That is, while the love of justice might be natural to all humanity, the content and meaning of that justice is far more often decided by custom and culture than by argument and philosophy. What people know, and what they act on, is what their culture—again, especially their religious culture—tells them is good or evil, noble or shameful. How is it that we Americans always seem to confuse what we’ve learned through our religions, our history, and our moral stories with universal human commands? The simple fact is that freedom and democracy have political, social, and cultural preconditions, and there are some nations, many nations, where the preconditions for just and free democratic rule are absent.
While it would have been nice if Agresto was more explicit in this quote that he is talking about the problems with Islam, qua Islam, it is not a stretch by any means to assume that he is referring to Islamic culture when he talks about a culture "in which there is little religious or intellectual freedom, where adherence to the commands of imams or religious scholars is sacrosanct...that believes its duty before God is to punish dissent, kill apostates, and exterminate God’s supposed enemies...in which there is no deep acceptance of difference" and that "such cultures will produce illiberal souls who are hardly strong candidates to form a truly liberal and free democracy."
So what should we do? How does the U.S. move forward? After being chastised by the experience of Iraq, Agresto recommends the following:
Should America continue its attempt to spread democracy abroad? Only in the most limited of circumstances, and only when we stop reflexively thinking that every mob that pits itself against autocratic rulers is made of “heroes and patriots.” Do the people we would aid appreciate freedom, and would they be ready to fight for it? More important, are they ready to fight for the freedom of their fellow citizens and be able to live and work with them? Are they willing to live under a government and under a rule of law that empowers and restrains the democratic majority? Are they, moreover, eager to live in peace with their foreign neighbors? If the answer to all those questions is yes, then and only then might it be worth our blood and treasure to help.
I don't think I can improve upon those wise words...
*Incidentally, I probably identify more with Professor Hanson than any other foreign policy writer active today. Although I'm not sure he would classify himself as a neocon, he often gets grouped with them due to his support for Afghanistan and Iraq. However, when you read through his writing and those folks who he promotes on his website (like Bruce Thorton), it is clear that Hanson has always had a more limited view of what we could realistically accomplish in both of those countries, but saw our efforts there as better than the status quo antebellum.
**When it comes to sparkling prose with bite, there are few who can top Mencius (here he is responding to his critics who accuse him British imperialsim):
You don't even need a pith helmet and a lisp to understand how a civilized nation can subdue and govern savages and barbarians. You can stay on our side of the Atlantic and our century, and look at the US experience in the Philippines or Haiti. You can read any pre-1945 field manual from the US military. PC-COIN basically consists of taking every known axiom about how to solve the problem properly, and reversing it. Instead of constantly demonstrating strength, for instance, it constantly demonstrates weakness. This masquerades as counterintuitive, which masquerades as smart. Indeed, one cannot defend it without being pretty damned smart..
And it's not even the willingness to bomb villages from the air, or whatever, that generates victory. Since we have way better gear than Wing Commander Pink, we can be way more subtle. All that is needed is that USG demonstrate to the Afghan people that it has chosen to rule them by force and without their consent, as a result of their actions in harboring Osama, KSM and their nasty friends. Seal the border, register and tax the population, impose indirect rule. Find some modern equivalent of Lord Cromer to run the whole thing.
Instead, we create the ultimate in passive-aggressive goverment. We whine and wheedle and curtsy before the savage tribe, pay it welfare for its misdeeds, apologize at every possible opportunity. At the same time, we hunt it with Predators. It's like a bad episode of "The Dog Whisperer," with the Pashtoons instead of the dog. Couldn't we get Cesar Millan to run Afghanistan for a while? His skin is about the right color, and he could hardly do worse.