There was a time, not too long ago, when most vocal advocates of free markets, private property, and constitutionally limited government — especially those who considered themselves to be libertarians or conservatives on the right — knew, or at least pretended to know, the difference between democracy and liberty. Indeed, most of these people would argue frequently and passionately that democracy was a great threat to liberty, which was a major reason for Constitutional limits on government power. Without a check on majoritarian rule, the majority would vote to increase taxes and wealth-distribution, disarm the population, and squash dissenters with the force of law. The whole point of the First and Second Amendments, and the Bill of Rights and Constitution generally, was to restrain the tyranny of the majority.
The conservatives argued along these lines in the 1990s, during the Clinton administration, and during a time of relative peace. Now that it’s 2005, during the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, most of them sing a different tune.
Now they claim democracy is liberty. The democratic victory of George Bush legitimizes what he has done and will do. The elections in Iraq are a triumph of freedom, in spite of any irregularities and problems with the elections, and even before the verdict is back on what they will produce. The role of the U.S. government should not only be to make the entire world safe for democracy, but to make the world unsafe for non-democracies — and all by force of arms, of course.
There’s nothing like being on the side of those who hold power to make one believe that that power is legitimate. There’s nothing like being in the majority party to make one believe that "majority rules" is a proper and moral doctrine of political philosophy. Liberals in the 1990s tended to hold that Clinton’s popularity was a sign that he must be right and his detractors must be wrong. But today, with a global project of U.S. democratizing imperialism, the fallacy that democracy = freedom presents us with far greater problems than what we faced in the 1990s.
We are all supposed to believe that the Iraqi elections validate Bush’s war, vindicate Bush for the thousands he’s killed, and justify further endeavors of U.S. intervention. We are not supposed to question the greatness of Iraq’s new experiment in democracy. I heard Rush Limbaugh say that the Democrats lost their second election in three months, that the success of the elections in Iraq is an electoral victory for Bush and the Republicans. If Limbaugh can politicize the issue, saying that the Iraqi elections constitute a political win for the president, why should it be so taboo for opponents of Bush and his foreign policy to question the true implications of the Iraqi elections? Or are we all supposed to blindly agree that, yes, Bush was and is right by virtue of the fact that voting took place in Iraq? (When voting takes place in Iran, it is still to be condemned, of course, as a meaningless show in a member-regime of the Axis of Evil.)
Most of today’s conservative pundits and liberventionist intellectuals seem to believe that democracy — or, indeed, the simple process of elections, no matter how confusing and problematic — is freedom. Beyond this, they have largely bought into the democratic peace theory, which argues that democracies almost never, if ever, go to war with other democracies, whereas autocracies and non-democracies do wage war on democracies.
This theory has lots of problems. Drawing on the literature of democratic peace theory, Ivan Eland points out, in his recent book, The Empire Has No Clothes, that "[Christopher] Layne notes that democracies are no less war-prone than nondemocracies…. Furthermore, the three greatest imperial powers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — France, Great Britain, and the United States — were democracies. Maintaining those empires had required many military interventions around the globe" (p. 39). Later, Eland notes that
"[s]ometimes democracies behave more aggressively than oligarchies or dictatorships. For example, in Ancient Greece, after the Athenian fleet failed to take Syracuse, an oligarchic coup occurred in Athens. When democracy was finally restored, Athenian policy again became more bellicose. In fact, democratic Athens was more aggressive than oligarchic Sparta…. As the Athenians assembled a powerful force to conquer Melos, the Melians attempted to make a moral case for peace. The Athenians slaughtered all the men, sold the women and children into slavery, and colonized the island….
"[Since] war and democracies have both been rare… the importance of any wars among democracies — for example, the War of 1812, the U.S. Civil War, and World War I — should be magnified" (p. 40).
Some of the biggest troubles with the theory relate to questions of what constitutes a democracy. According to Eland, "democratic peace theorists frequently and unconvincingly try to tweak the definition of democracy to exclude those cases from the category of u2018wars within the democratic family.’ For example, [they] attempt to exclude Wilhelmine Germany" from the definition. In spite of pre-World War I Germany’s "broadest voting franchise on the continent," "constitutional checks on the executive, parliamentary government, and civil liberties" and its widely perceived status as a "progressive constitutional state," Americans began to see it as more "militaristic and authoritarian" once the war broke out. And "although Germany often gets too much blame for causing World War I… the reckless German behavior prior to the war was caused by Democratic pressures. The German government, threatened from gains by the Social Democratic Party, attempted to unify the country with overly competitive behavior overseas" (41).
These definition games have some interesting implications. If, like some "freedomists" — a newly self-applied label to describe at least one democratic socialist-turned liberventionist — you consider Afghanistan to be a democracy but don’t consider World War I-Germany to be one, it looks as though the word "democracy" is simply being used, through circular reasoning, to describe only those countries that fit the democratic peace theory. One supposed criterion is that democracies must have their war-making powers derived from and invested in the people or their representatives, rather than an autocrat (as opposed to in America, where Congress declares war and presidents only have the unilateral power to wage "police actions" that kill tens of thousands of people). The newly minted "democracy" of Afghanistan, however, doesn’t have its war-making powers democratically controlled. Afghanistan is rife with warlords and its official centralized military center is formally controlled, just like in the other U.S. satellites, from Washington, DC.
Now we start to truly understand the implications of democratic peace theory, at least as it is advanced by the advocates of U.S. wars for "liberation." Under the theory, a "democracy" essentially seems to mean the U.S. government and its allies. A "non-democracy" means any country the U.S. government happens to want to go to war with. Right now, the U.S. government is on friendly terms with the nominal government of Afghanistan. If ever that changes, I will bet the theorists stop calling the country a democracy. Right now, Iraq’s nominal government is an ally of the U.S., so much so that the mayor of Baghdad may soon erect a statue in the capital to honor the likeness of George W. Bush. If ever the Iraqi regime turns against the United States, or the United States turns against the Iraq regime, we can probably expect to hear no more about the alleged legitimacy of Iraq’s electoral government.
The U.S. government has invaded, bombed and staged coups in an awful lot of countries. Of course, these nations failed the test under the rubric of democratic peace. When the U.S. government went to war with North Vietnam; invaded Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq; and bombed Libya, Sudan, and Serbia — the U.S. was a "democracy," and therefore righteous, while the nations it attacked were not. Under democratic peace theory as embraced by pro-war thinkers on the right, these military interventions were justifiable, and, indeed, should be amplified and expanded throughout the globe. Democracies implicitly and not so implicitly have a right, maybe even a duty, to go to war and convert as many countries to "democracy" as possible, at which point we can expect the newly converted to be at peace with other "democracies" — that is, the U.S. and its allies. Since only a few governments have ever attacked the United States, what this assurance of peace really means is that once a country has been forcefully converted to "democracy" by the United States, the U.S. will no longer go to war with it.
To complicate matters further, the U.S. government has overthrown democratically elected rulers, such as in Iran and Chile, and put U.S.-friendly murderous thugs in their stead. These countries, beforehand, in spite of their elections, were not considered "democracies" under democratic-peace theory, presumably because that would make it difficult for the theory to explain how a "democracy" like the U.S. government could have possibly overthrown them.
In the end, "democracy" simply describes a government that does not deserve to be violently overthrown by the United States. And this can change at the whim of the United States. If we want to be honest about it, perhaps we should call the whole idea, at least as embraced by the hawkish believers, "democratic war theory."
With few exceptions, the U.S. government has utterly failed in converting countries into anything resembling true democracies, much less free nations. There hasn’t been anything close to a genuine long-term success in this regard since World War II. Interventionists often rely on West Germany and Japan as the model successes, without considering the failures such as East Germany, Eastern Europe and much of Asia, not to mention the massive loss of innocent life and American liberties. They are making a weak argument for global war of unimaginable magnitude and calamity on the basis of some unverifiable, hardly proven theory compounded with a poor record of success. Even if we accept that 400,000 Americans died to liberate Germany and Japan, and ignore all the other costs, it is unfathomable to apply this formula of success throughout the world.
Coming back to why it’s supposedly okay for the U.S. government to invade and conquer any country deemed "undemocratic," we return to the notion that the U.S. government is a great democracy — in fact, to paraphrase Madeline Albright, the only indispensable democratic nation — and therefore has the right to remake the world in its image. Considering once again that this may very well be because the pro-war American liberators simply happen to agree with and approve of the current president — that, indeed, this might all be a symptom of partisanship — we can hope that, once another Clinton seizes the White House, many of today’s rightwing Wilsonians will return to quoting Jefferson and waxing eloquent about the dangers of an unrestrained social democracy, militarized and postured to launch revolution across the world and destroy all international monsters. We can cross our fingers and hope that this is mostly a matter of domestic politics, of shilling for Bush, in which case these world-builders will return to their denunciations of mere "nation-building" as soon as the next Emperor is a Democrat. By then, much destruction may have already taken place, but at least the American right would again pose, however disingenuously, as principled opponents of expansive leviathan, rather than as its best friends and most loyal sycophants.
However, I worry that these people do in fact believe what they say they believe — that is, that the U.S. government can do no wrong in foreign affairs, that it may, should and must embark on a worldwide mission to cleanse the world of non-democracies and establish friendly "democratic" governments everywhere on earth.
Let us seriously hope not. It would take a whole lot of war and death to do this, and all that would be promised, assuming that the impossible mission could succeed, is a new slate of governments as humane and free as Afghanistan’s current warlordism. From my point of view, and from the claimed point of view of conservatives only five years ago, being able to call such brutal governments "democratic" is not worth perpetual world war.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.