America's Gunboat Democracy

Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients From: Jude Wanniski Re: Spreading Freedom by Force

This was my commentary first posted March 23 on the Al Jazeera English-language website. The Nixon italicized quotes near the end of the piece are noteworthy in that many of the leading neo-conservatives were followers of the Nixon foreign-policy agenda when they were young. So was I.

America’s gunboat democracy by Jude Wanniski

In the last three decades, there always has been little doubt in my mind that democratic institutions would soon replace or subsume the world's last remaining monarchies, including those in the Middle East.

Monarchs could rule effectively when the world moved at a snail’s pace, but with the accelerated pace of change in the global political economy, the monarchical form of government simply can’t keep up. In my 1978 book, The Way the World Works, I wrote:

“The electorate, being wiser than any individual in the society, is society’s most precious resource. It is the job of the politician to try to divine what it is the electorate wants.

“Politicians have the most important and difficult task in all of society, for they are the only channel through which the electorate can realise its self-interest and in so doing preserve itself and progress.

“It politicians repeatedly fail to discern the interests of the electorate, winning office only because their political competitors have even less discernment, the society will ultimately resort to either war or revolution to bring about a correction.”

Like all Americans, President Bush believes in “democracy," because it has worked so well for the United States. But also like most Americans, he has never thought much about “democracy” other than that it means popular elections of political leaders – as opposed to inherited political power.

Bush and his team are now taking the elections in Iraq and signs of democratic political change elsewhere in the Mideast as justification for his taking the United States to war, although no mention of spreading the gospel of democracy was mentioned at the time.

Where is this leading? Mr Bush’s pro-war supporters in Congress and in the news media are already trumpeting a prediction that he will go down in history for forcing change upon those elites who have long resisted freedom and democracy for their people.

Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times sees him perhaps as a new Napoleon, a populist who rose out of the common clay to change the world in many positive ways, even while using force of arms as the battering ram for change.

On the other hand, there is Pat Buchanan, the conservative political commentator who worked for presidents Nixon and Reagan during the Cold War and twice ran for president.

In his 14 February 14 column, Buchanan notes that Bush says “democracy and freedom” are on the march.

But instead, it may be that revolution is on the march. If Bush turns out to be right, he “will be viewed by history as a Reaganite visionary who, seeing deeper into the Islamic soul than critics, understood that an invasion of Iraq would unleash the liberating force of freedom, not the demonic force of Islamic revolution."

An opponent of the war with Iraq, Buchanan clearly expects that when the dust settles a bit, the Middle East will not look the way President Bush expected it to.

It is already clear that Iraq may form a government that will not only be much less secular than the regime that Bush overturned, but also may invite the United States to pull stakes and leave completely.

Even with the interim government practically installed by the United States, democratic principles of free press and free speech were shelved, with Aljazeera itself barred from reporting while news outlets supportive of the Allawi regime were favoured.

The events in Lebanon are even less likely to satisfy the Bush administration, stunned into silence by Hizb Allah’s show of political power that surprised all American observers.

Bush seemed to believe the Lebanese people would dance in the streets singing his praises for demanding an end to the Syrian presence. And 70,000 did.

But the following day, 500,000 Lebanese showed up at the same square to denounce America. They represented the forces that originally invited Syria’s military presence to end the military clashes between Maronite Christians and Palestinians in Southern Lebanon.

It was a conflict that could not be avoided by Lebanon’s concessionary democracy – which allocates power by percentages to the Christians, Sunnis, Shia and Druse. They clearly wish Syria to play a role until the elections next month.

The turnabout was so quick that it did not leave President Bush time to change his celebration of the first Beirut demonstration and in a speech the following day, he behaved as if the outpouring of 500,000 Lebanese was another sure sign of democracy on the march.

Shaikh Hasan Nasr Allah, Hizb Allah’s leader, could make the obvious point that a majority clearly favours Syria’s presence, and if that isn’t democratic, what is?

What happens next? The US, now backed by a UN resolution, demands Syria’s retreat behind its borders before the spring elections in Lebanon, but UN officials prefer to hold the elections before the Syrian withdrawal.

It’s not at all clear how this will play out. Buchanan observes that “almost every revolution demands the expulsion of foreign troops. The Syrian army may leave Lebanon, but this presages a demand that the US army get out of Iraq and the Israelis get off the Golan Heights and out of the West Bank."

To appreciate the ironies of the moment, we can recollect that the outlines of President Bush’s call for a worldwide democratic crusade were hatched a dozen years ago by the intellectuals around him

These were the young men chosen by president Nixon for his foreign-policy team: Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Cheney, the elder George Bush; and the “neo-cons” who were nominally Democrats: Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, James Woolsey.

In his 1992 book, Seize the Moment, Nixon wrote that “the death of Soviet communism and the disintegration of the Soviet empire in 1991 revolutionised the global landscape. I believe that it is imperative that the US seize this moment to secure peace and advance freedom around the world.”

In that sense, US foreign policy is still the design of an American president who died soon after writing his book. As an admirer of Nixon’s world-view, I’ve often believed that he would not have followed the course plotted by the neo-cons in subsequent years, which has left us with such a mess today.

Earlier in the same book, in fact, Nixon had this to say about a march of democracy at the end of a gun, what I call “gunboat democracy," with the neo-cons actually having as one of their heroes Teddy Roosevelt, who practised what came to be called “gunboat diplomacy”:

“Those who call for a global democratic crusade ignore the limits of our power. Recognising these limits does not mean that we should shrug off forces struggling to advance democracy or that we should give a green light to dictators poised to strike against fragile democratic regimes.

“But we do not have sufficient power to remake the world in our image. Even in the West, democratic government has existed for only two hundred years.

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