Democracy first?

We might rue the day we force our authoritarian allies to democratize, Robert Kaplan argues, once we see who replaces them.

Damien Cave
November 23, 2001 5:20AM (UTC)

Which comes first, democracy or security? Human rights or stability? American foreign policy has always swung between these poles -- and in the post-Sept. 11 world, the perennial debate is heating up once more.

This time around, the question takes a new form: Are U.S. interests, and America's need to combat international terrorism, best served by supporting cooperative authoritarian governments in nations like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan -- or by encouraging the evolution of democracy and open societies in the Muslim world?


With the war in Afghanistan edging closer to an American victory, these broad foreign policy questions have crystallized in the work of two writers, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and author and Atlantic correspondent Robert Kaplan.

Friedman has repeatedly argued since Sept. 11 that the way to quell anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim world is to promote democratic reform there. The authoritarian governments we are allied with, he argues, need to open their societies and end their tacit endorsement of anti-American radical fundamentalism. U.S. foreign policy can't ignore school curriculums that teach "death to the infidels," he argued in an October column. As he said in a brief telephone interview, "You cannot have a modernization of religion outside the context of a democratic society."

Kaplan, the author of seven books, including "Balkan Ghosts," has staked out a position that's considerably more cautious. Drawing on his own reporting and the ideas of scholars like Samuel Huntington, he espouses a skeptical approach: If the U.S. destabilizes its current allies, he says, the alternatives will most likely be far more hostile and dangerous to our interests.


Salon asked Kaplan for his thoughts on Friedman's stance and on the future of American foreign policy.

Friedman's Nov. 20 column points out that India and Bangladesh have large Muslim populations, but because their democracies allow for dissent, militant Anti-Americanism is not widespread. Is he right -- can spreading democracy help us achieve our foreign policy goals?

I've always been impressed with India and Bangladesh. The distinction, though, is that Tom Friedman seems to be saying that this is the route forward everywhere, and I've been arguing that this is the route forward in many places, but not in other places. Every place has its own peculiar characteristics. Tunisia, for instance, is probably the most pro-American Arab state, even deep down among the population, not just the regime. But it's not democratic. It's an enlightened dictatorship, and the ruler is a former interior minister, a security service heavy. Morocco has partial, limited democracy. And I don't think if more were forced upon it, it would increase the stability or pro-Americanism of King Mohammed VI.


The Egyptian and Saudi regimes are increasingly bad, and Friedman's written some eloquent columns about that, but I'm not sure that anything that would replace them would be better -- it would probably be worse. So while it's true that India and Bangladesh have been impressive in many ways, you cannot carry the example over to other places.

The real reason why India is democratic and hasn't had coups and why Pakistan has had such a terrible time is because India directly inherited British civilian administration. It inherited a civilian administration with the institutions perfectly formulated for democracy, whereas the area that constitutes Pakistan was the frontier zone that the British ruled only through a military administration. It was basically the tribal borderlands that had never had any civil rule at all.


So my real difference with the pro-democracy folks is not that I'm anti-democracy. It's just that from years of reporting, I see a great continuum rather than a sharp separation. You can't define regimes simply; you can in some places -- because there's real terrible totalitarianism with Saddam Hussein and other people like that -- but in many places, these are subtle distinctions.

On the subject of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, one could argue that Sept. 11's attacks represent the ultimate failure of the American foreign policy that's supported these countries' repressive regimes for years. When a country like Saudi Arabia exports terrorists -- 15 of the 19 suspects -- isn't it time to rethink the level of U.S. support?

No, I don't think so. As despicable and feckless and disappointing as the Saudi regime is, anything that replaces it would be worse. Anyone who says that it would be good to overthrow the Saudi regime, tell me the names of the people who would replace it. Tell me the groups that would replace it. Because the few civil-society intellectuals in Saudi Arabia would probably be the first to be smashed.


Look at the example of Iran. This argument of supporting more openness was really the trendy thing for intellectuals in the mid-'70s -- if only we could overthrow the shah! And the middle-class moderate, intellectual, civil-society types in Iran at that time constituted a much wider and more secure stratum of society than they do in Saudi Arabia now.

But Iran seems to have gone through its extreme phase and is now beginning to look like a success, not a failure.

But it's a quarter-century later, a quarter-century later. And people in positions of power have to think about two years ahead, four years ahead. They have to deal with the consequences of their acts.


Why only two to four years?

Because we could face a big threat -- Huntington wrote about this three years ago. Now, or in 15 or 20 years, it's highly likely that if we were overextended -- if we had, say humanitarian interventions in 10 places rather than in two -- it would be harder for us to respond quickly to a whole new overnight threat. Because the Pentagon and other departments would be so overextended, in terms of dealing with the daily minutiae of overseas deployments.

Imagine if instead of Bosnia and Kosovo, we had, say, three or four others on that scale. How much more difficult would it be for the top echelon and the Pentagon to deal with that? You're overstretched when you can't react to crises and when your top leaders can't work on them eight to 10 hours a day because they're dealing with lesser concerns. That could be two interventions, it could be 20. It all depends what kind they are.

This get backs to something I've argued about in print for three years now -- the need for the creation of a global constabulary force. This would take the pressure off the U.S. so that there can be more interventions. It's simply not in our interest to get over-extended, and yet I believe that humanitarian interventions will be more and more necessary because of the press of poverty, overpopulation, resource scarcity -- all these things that will aggravate already-existing ethnic tensions.


So you're arguing that these tensions should be dealt with, but not through U.S. forces. But to what extent does the United States have a duty -- as the world's only superpower -- to lead the way? Are you arguing that we should be entirely uninvolved?

No, of course not. We provide the organizing principle of this. I have a book coming out in January called "Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos," and it's a philosophical guide to being a superpower in the age of terrorism. It draws on the ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese, the modern philosophers like Isaiah Berlin and others -- and it's about how, when you have 200-odd nation states, thousands of NGOs and all this bureaucracy, they can't possibly agree with each other on the topics of dynamic positive change. It requires the organizing principle, however loose, of some kind of hegemony.

Getting back to Iran, why not stay out of these countries and let the revolutions run their course?

I think we are doing that. Keep this in mind -- and I think Tom would agree with me here -- when you're in Washington or San Francisco it seems that we're directing reality there, that the regime in Egypt or Saudi Arabia is there because of our money, etc. But when you're there and it takes you four hours to drive through Cairo traffic, or 90 minutes to drive from north to south Tehran, you realize that all the aid and influence we put in is but a tiny shred of the domestic reality. Developments in these countries are 90 percent internally driven. And the challenge of foreign policy is that we try to have influence, and yet it's so hard. The influence we have, even when we give $1 or $2 billion to countries like Pakistan or Egypt, is so small relative to the total economy that it could backfire and have opposite, undesired effects.


So I think Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the way they are because of the overwhelming contradictions of their history and development. It's nothing we're doing. We would be much happier with a regime in Egypt that was a bit more enlightened, where the president didn't feel so insecure we had to appoint his son as the heir apparent. We would love it. But as Machiavelli said, "You're stuck with dealing with the material at hand."

But why not work hard to change the material at hand? Why not make support for Saudi Arabia's regime contingent on democratic reforms? Now more than ever, isn't it possible to believe that encouraging democracy in these countries, by whatever means necessary, actually falls in line with our interests, with our desire to end terrorism?

No, I don't agree with that, because I think our national interests have always been in maintaining stability. Slow change is better than fast change, because slow change has a lower risk factor of upheaval, and upheavals always lead to human suffering and often worse regimes rather than better ones. We want slow, gradual change as much as we can.

Edmund Burke is considered the greatest enlightened conservative because he believed that philosophy is about pacing: When change is happening too fast, you try to slow it up; when it's going too slow, you try to speed it up. Look at China. I believe that several of Friedman's columns tackled this. He was saying, "Don't be demanding democracy today in China; China's opening up anyway."


People don't understand how Western business investment is changing China so dramatically. We shouldn't be force-feeding our values on them. And in fact, Egypt has been changing dramatically too, in many ways; the middle class, for example, has been enlarging. So I think it would be foolish for us to push change too fast because it could easily backfire.

So you agree with Friedman here: Business and globalization act as democratic forces?

I agree because I saw it firsthand in Romania. In Romania, democracy is advancing not because of civil-society democracy initiatives or because the Americans are beating up on the Romanians to be more open. It's progressing because the values of a Western corporation are basically the values of Western society, and they hire legions of young people in those countries and indoctrinate them into the corporate values, which are our values.

What about Friedman's argument that the best way to change Pakistan and Saudi Arabia is through altering the madrasas, the religious schools. Does that go too far?

No. I made all these arguments two years ago. I did a long piece saying that the Afghan-Pakistani tribal borderlands would be the next great center of conflict, and one of the reasons I pointed out was the madrasa system.

Some see you as a permanent pessimist who always cries "the sky is falling." How do you reconcile this pessimism with success stories like the Balkans? In that case, many argued that the international community shouldn't go because it was a hopeless cause that could only be made worse, but now Milosevic is in the Hague, and elections have been successfully held.

The argument about Kosovo wasn't really, don't go in; it was about the fact that Rambouillet [the peace plan designed to give Kosovo sovereignty, which Milosevic rejected] was so badly orchestrated or unorchestrated that it was a war that might not have been necessary. That was the real serious argument about Kosovo.

But I wrote the New York Times op-ed piece the day after Milosevic was overthrown, and one of the things I said was that these things never go smoothly. Foreign policy is kind of like baseball, it's not like basketball. In basketball, you need nine out 10 hoops to be an all-star, but in baseball if you hit it just one out of three times, you're an all-star. So it was a messy way to get Milosevic out, but it was the only thing that eventually worked.

The Bush administration started out toeing what might be called a Kaplanite line: no nation building; use force only when U.S. interests were clearly involved. What do you make of the fact that the administration is now talking about reconstructing Afghanistan, essentially shifting toward a more Friedman-like stance?

I don't think that's going on at all. I would put it this way: Reconstruction in Afghanistan is different than going into Bosnia or Kosovo or Rwanda. It's because Bosnia was partially related to our national interests because of the issue of preserving NATO at a critical time. Rwanda was totally unrelated to our national interests; Kosovo less so. In other words, those interventions were primarily humanitarian even though there were security elements, whereas reconstructing Afghanistan is directly tied to national interests. That is a crucial difference. There are a lot of serious conservative realists who were opposed to Bosnia and Rwanda who would be in favor of this.

But isn't the judgment of what's in our national interest somewhat arbitrary? After all, no one thought Afghanistan was a national security problem in 1989, which is why we left.

Here I have a very iconoclastic opinion, because I covered it. I was there and I think there's been a lot of rewriting of history. After 1989, we appointed a special negotiator -- we worked long and hard during the early '90s trying to get the various mujahedin groups together. We failed, but the reason we failed and the reason there was chaos in Afghanistan was not because we neglected the Afghans. It was because of the connivance of the Pakistani intelligence services, who deliberately created the chaos by supporting the most extreme elements. And then when the Taliban emerged out of this, it was the Pakistani state -- under a democratically elected prime minister, Benazir Bhutto -- which allowed the Taliban to consolidate power by tying them into the Pakistani phone grid.

So the real issue there is not that we neglected Afghanistan; it's that to make sure that this doesn't happen again, we need to rewrite our relationship with Pakistan.

We have a diplomatic challenge, which is this: How do we reward an ally that's been loyal to us while at the same time not giving in to our allies' worst, basest instincts in Afghanistan? If we can get that right, if we can get the Pakistanis to agree not to -- excuse the language -- fuck around and support one extremist after another, we'll be OK.

That sounds like an interventionist strategy, which contrasts sharply with your take on Egypt and Saudi Arabia. How can you be so sure that intervening in Pakistan and Afghanistan is in our national interest while doing so in Saudi Arabia and Egypt is not?

You've got the idea of intervention wrong. To tell the Pakistanis we don't like this aspect of your policy toward one country is not intervention. It's the level of disputes we have every day, whenever the secretary or undersecretary of state meet with representatives all over the world. Intervention means you put troops on the ground, you want a different regime. Telling the Pakistanis, "Look, we're giving you a billion in aid, we have a longstanding relationship but we want you to adjust your policy in Afghanistan," that's not intervention.

So you don't think that Afghanistan is more vital than Egypt and Saudi Arabia?

No, not at all. I think they're all vital.

Then why do you favor reconstructing Afghanistan -- which is essentially nation-building -- while arguing that the U.S. shouldn't do anything in terrorist-exporting nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia?

Because Afghanistan has already collapsed; it can't get any worse, so I can't see how aid and intervention would do any harm. It could only do good.

What would you say to those who argue that by propping up dictators -- Musharraf now, people like Pinochet in the past -- we lose vital credibility with our allies? Do England and France, for example, have the right to condemn the United States for not living up to its democratic principles?

I don't think they do. Our principles are -- and Joseph Conrad wrote this at the end of World War I -- to support more openness in whatever form it may take, rather than demanding elections, per se. George Soros talks about open societies, but he doesn't demand elections everywhere every time.

And in the case of India and Bangladesh, Friedman is right. It is a laudable system compared to whatever else would be there. But that doesn't mean that putting a gun to the head of Musharraf and saying "hold elections" would make things better.

Let's talk for a second about the Arab-Israeli conflict. How does it fit into the present war on terrorism?

It's a bit of a quandary over timing. If the administration puts pressure now on Israel to come to terms, it would seem like a concession to bin Laden and company. But on the other hand, moderates in the Muslim world have been sticking their necks out for us -- Musharraf and other leaders -- and the way practical politics works is that they'll want a payoff. And that payoff translates into more American pressure on Israel.

So I would think that later on in the process, maybe after we've gotten bin Laden or after a decent interval, there will be much stronger American pressure on Israel than there is now. This is just a guess, but I think one of the reasons why Powell's speech was a bit disappointing, why he didn't propose much that's new, is because the Saudis and the Egyptians have been so disappointing. Perhaps they're thinking, "Why give them a victory by putting pressure on Israel if they haven't delivered for us? Let's see if they can come up with jailing more fundamentalists, being more cooperative with the FBI, and then later on we can give them a victory."

But what about when this reward system clashes with our interests -- for example, what if one of the rewards Musharraf asks for is a hands-off policy on the madrasas? Under your strategy, should the U.S. comply?

You've raised a very serious question. But the real risk in Pakistan is not chaos or education, it's another coup by a group of lower level officers who are more fundamentalist and less exposed to the West. And in fact, this is what a lot of our aid to Egypt over the years has been -- an indirect way to bribe the officer corps in Egypt. So that's what the aid is about.

Neither the military nor any democratic government in Pakistan has shown the slightest interest in primary education. They have these schools on the books that they call ghost schools. They technically exist, but the money goes into the pockets of politicians and officers, and that has provided the opening for these madrasas.

But the issue is that the democratic governments were no better. It's systemic in Pakistan. Some of it's cultural; people don't want to send their daughters to school to learn how to read. But we can't force them. The Indian subcontinent has something like 40 percent of the world's illiterate people and the world's most skyrocketing defense budget. Put those things together and there's not much we can do.

This gets back to Huntington's more general argument that we can't make people like us, and trying to force them will only make things worse. I agree with the spirit of what Tom wrote because I wrote the same thing years ago -- but it's a real, real tough problem.

Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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