Saturday, August 16, 2008

What "Democracy" Means to a Neocon

Neoconservatives are predictably hyperventilating about the Russian attack on Georgia and crying "appeasement" with warnings about Munich. But at the same time they acknowledge that Vladimir Putin is nowhere near as ambitious as Hitler. He is simply seeking to dominate Russia's "near abroad."

A fair question, then, is why that would be so bad. Granted, neocons want to envelop the entire world in benevolent US hegemony, but would it kill us to keep our hands off Russia's "near abroad" and recognize Russia as a "(sorta) great power" doing what great powers do? The neocon response is that it is not just universal benevolent hegemony we are seeking; it is democracy. Autocratic (though not Communist or militant Islamist) Russia is menacing democratic Georgia and Ukraine.

To anyone who points out that Russia, after all, now has contested elections, and that Putin and his protegees won fair and square, neocons would presumably reply that it takes more than elections to make a democracy. This is also their response to anyone who argues for the electoral legitimacy of, say, Amadinejad in Iran, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Hamas in the Gaza, or Hezbollah seeking a place at the table in Lebanon.

I fully agree. It takes more than contested elections to make a true democracy. Other factors include:

  • The elective government must hold actual power. If the elected government is mere window dressing and real power lies elsewhere, that is not democracy. Contested elections will never make Iran democratic so long as real power lies with unelected Ayatollahs.
  • The elective government must be bound by laws and simply the leader's unbridled will. If the rule of law does not prevail, the government is not a democracy, but an elective dictatorship. Putin and Chavez are behaving like elective dictators.
  • The elective government must respect basic human rights. Government by arbitrary arrest, torture and murder may be elective, but it can never be democratic. Hamas, in consolidating power, has spectacularly violated individual rights at every turn. Putin's record in this department leaves much to be desired. And so forth.
  • The elective government must allow sufficient freedom of dissent for opposition to flourish and contest future elections. Otherwise it is simply "one man, one vote, one time." Hezbollah, for instance, holds southern Lebanon in a totalitarian grip within a democratic system. The others may be less blatant, but all do their best to prevent meaningful opposition.
  • The elective government must not only voice the will of the majority, it must respect the rights of the minority. Otherwise it is not true democracy, but merely majority tyranny.

Neocons are quite right to point all these things out. Of course, neocons ignore equally serious failings in purportedly democratic allies. Afghanistan is a democracy even though President Karzai is referred to as "the mayor of Kabul" because outside the capital warlords rule. The Iraqi government is democratic even though its power has not always extended beyond the Green Zone; it routinely ignores its own laws; it has allied with death squads murdering men for their religion; it has no meaningful representation of Sunni Arabs, who (foolishly) boycotted the 2005 elections; and it is now seeking to avoid provincial elections that may threaten its power. Georgia's President Mikhael Saakashvilli is a democrat even though he has arrested opponents, charged them with espionage, beaten protesters, and censored unwelcome news.

All of which leads to one basic point. The above criteria are merely excuses. To neocons, for a government to be "democratic," it need meet only two standards. (1) It must have semi-plausible elections and (2) it must toe our line. When a government reverses its policies to our liking, neocons can reverse their judgments with stunning speed. When Mahmud Abbas ran in an uncontested election for President of the Occupied Territories and denounced Israel, Charles Krauthammer jeered that even though this was a Palestinian elections, with the outcome pre-determined, why was Abbas running as Yasser Arafat. But when Abbas opened to negotiations with Israel, he suddenly became a noble democratic leader. Likewise, up to 2006, neoconservatives condemned many of our Arab allies such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States for their lack of democracy. But when they condemned Hezbollah's provocation against Israel, these governments suddenly became "reformist." (Not even neocons could claim they were democratic).

The neocon rule is simple. An elective government that toes our line is a democracy and all blemishes will be ignored. Governments that do not toe our line, elective or not, cannot possibly be democratic.

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