Location: Fairfax, Virginia, United States

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Freedom, Democracy and Why Not

Vol. I, No. 4
September 2006

“The President has turned ‘freedom’ into a dirty word, and it needs to be carefully rehabilitated before it can be made a rallying cry....One of the greatest challenges of the next few years will be to rescue democracy, human rights, and national security from the company these words have recently kept. A clear-eyed understanding of our predicament begins with the recognition that American interests and values do not always rhyme; imagining that they do makes it more likely that in the end we’ll compromise both.” George Packer, “Fighting Faiths,” The New Yorker, July 10-17, 2006.

Freedom and Democracy

Having devoted considerable time and effort to propounding the doctrine that democracy is universally applicable and that there is a worldwide trend toward greater democracy, I feel I should say something about George Bush’s undoubtedly sincere belief that the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were and are intended to advance the cause of greater political freedom and self-governance.

It’s true that Iraqis, like everybody else, would prefer, all other things being equal, to choose their own government, and it’s true that Sadaam was a brutal dictator who was preventing any real progress or development in Iraq. I believe the US Government should make very clear its distaste for such rulers, and we were negligent, to put it mildly, in failing to do so for many years in Latin America. And I thought while in the Foreign Service that after Latin American policy changed, my Arabist colleagues were slow in seeing the light - that they were being too apologetic for the sins of the Arab rulers because having good relations with them was so “important.” (I may be unfair because in fact I know very few Arabists and have never really talked to them about this issue.)

But there is a big difference between making clear our distaste for autocratic governments and setting out to overthrow them. One reason stems from the deepest single conviction I had in the FS, that we know very little about the inner workings of other countries, even those of us who study them in depth – and no US policymaker has ever studied a foreign society in depth. In other words, we have no idea what we’re doing when we set out to change other countries, even in the most benign ways and for the most laudable motives. Does that mean we shouldn’t have a foreign policy? Not at all. It just means that we have to (1) be very careful, (2) be very certain that what we are doing is important to US interests, and (3) try to avoid unintended consequences.

The other reason to be cautious about overthrowing other governments is that change is successful only if the country’s people want change badly enough. We have slowly learned that economic development only takes place if there is a national will to develop; it cannot be imposed from outside, no matter how many millions are spent. Same thing is true for political change. The policy that worked so well in Chile in 1985-88 would not have worked in 1975-78, and that’s why Reagan in his second term succeeded where Carter failed (not that Reagan knew or cared anything about Chile). A conviction had to grow among the Chilean people that enough was enough, that it was time for a change. We encouraged and gave moral and modest financial support to efforts Chileans themselves were making for change. But they did it, not the United States, A topic good for endless debate is whether they would have said no to Pinochet in 1988 anyway, even had the US done nothing. They might very well have. (It was Generals Matthei and Stange who kept Pinochet from stealing the plebiscite, not the US Embassy.)

If a real internal opposition had developed in Iraq, they would have had to build some of those Sunni-Shia-Kurd alliances we are now trying to impose upon them. And because they would have built them themselves, they would be more likely to last. So should we have funded opposition movements in Iraq? Absolutely, even though we now know that those movements existed only in Washington and other foreign capitals, and had almost zero presence in Baghdad. Should we have pressured and harassed Sadaam and tried to undermine him at every turn? Sure, and we now know we should have spent a lot more time monitoring the UN oil for food program than searching for WMD. But invade and conquer just because he was a dictator? Why stop with Iraq? Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Cuba, North Korea, China? To recite the list is to make it obvious why Bush didn’t dare use the “freedom and democracy” rationale when he invaded Iraq. It is a entirely a post hoc argument.

So, as Mr. Packer says, it’s not that “freedom” is the wrong rallying cry. And it’s a good thing, not a bad one, that right-wing leaders like Reagan and Bush have come around to believe that America should stand for democracy around the world. It puts them squarely in the mainstream of Liberal political thought, even though they would never admit it. But although you can apparently win an election campaign on the basis of clever advertising slogans, you can’t run a country, or the world, that way.


We attended services last Sunday at one of the dissident Episcopal churches, which like the others has deleted the word Episcopal from its name, signs, and printed materials. I have been trying to figure out since why it is that they irritate me so. I was, after all, brought up as a Presbyterian, and still feel most at home there. We only started going to Episcopal churches after my wife left the Catholic Church and we started looking for something with similar liturgy but less rigidity. So why should I care what the Episcopalians do?

I suppose part of it is the image they themselves created (viz. Life With Father), as THE upper class church, the church attended by the successful, those who rule our society. We might make fun of their pretentions, but there was no question where the important people attended church. So they could be bigoted and prejudiced, but not silly or stupid – because that makes the Establishment silly and stupid, and that’s a frightening thought.

Yet here we have all this fuss over a single gay Bishop – just one! – who is stuck away off in some remote state called New Hampshire and apparently has done nothing else even remotely worthy of criticism, which leads one to conclude that what really scares them is not the fact that he is gay but the danger that they may have to shake hands with him at some conference or another. And his supporters have now gone and elected a WOMAN as Presiding Bishop, when the dissidents are still trying to get used to the fact that women may now be ordained as priests. (In fact, it’s clear from some of their statements that the schismatics are still bitter over the decision years ago to ordain women.)

Social change has come awfully fast in our society, much faster and in a greater variety of ways than at any previous time. It isn’t at all surprising that a significant number of people have been knocked for a loop by all the changes. But somehow one expected better of the top dogs, the Episcopalians – more stability, more sense of proportion. And the dissidents are calling themselves Anglicans – aren’t they afraid of being thought un-American?


If I read a book that I like, I want to read everything I can find by the same author – really good authors are hard to find, so you have to take full advantage of them when you come across one. I’m reading the second book by Gianrico Carofiglio, the Italian judge whose fictional hero is a defense attorney: A Walk in the Dark, and it’s just as good as Involuntary Witness. My wife and I are reading together The No. l Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, a white Zimbabwean who lives in Scotland but returns regularly to Botswana, where he once taught law at the University. His heroine is Precious Ramotswe, the only lady private detective in Botswana. I can already tell that I want to read at least some of the five other books he was written about her. And I have read two books by David Mitchell, Black Swan Green and Number 9 Dream. The former is about a year in the life of a 13-year-old British boy and the latter is about a few months in the life of a 20-year-old Japanese man. Mitchell is by far the best writer of these three, in fact one of the best writers I know. I cannot recommend Black Swan Green highly enough; it is a stunning accomplishment. The other book is not quite on the same level – it was written earlier by a young writer who perhaps had not fully mastered his craft - but fascinating nevertheless. Like Smith in Botswana, Mitchell lived in Japan for a time and it certainly seems to me that he has the atmosphere and the point of view spot on. I would love to know what a Japanese would say.

It will be evident from the foregoing that I like reading about other countries, other peoples. Perhaps that comes from being in the Foreign Service, although I think actually it was the other way around.


I rented North Country and The Greatest Game Ever Played on the same weekend; it was coincidental that both were based on real events. I thoroughly enjoyed the latter, with all its faults as a stereotypical Disney film, and found the former disappointing, and I’ve been reflecting on the reasons. The acting was very good in both, and, insofar as I am qualified to judge, the direction as well. But TGGEP worked, and North Country didn’t. Both had wonderful little-guy-overcoming-all-odds-
to-triumph-in-the-end stories to tell. And a lot of the pleasure from TGGEP came from knowing we were cheering for a real person who did exactly what was being portrayed. (Except for the addition of an upper-class girl who admired the hero, who probably existed only in the Disney studios.) But my guess is that the producers of NC decided they didn’t want to, or couldn’t, resolve the legal issues involved in a story based on a real person in a real mine, and so opted for a composite heroine and a composite company. So they wound up with something neither wholly true nor wholly untrue. The viewer is very much aware of this, so although we can cheer for her victory in court, which presumably was real, we can’t cheer for her eventual successful bonding with her son, which was presumably invented. Had it been a flat-out fiction to begin with we could have cheered for the fictional character, or a wholly true story (apart from Hollywood’s exaggerations and prettifying), like A Civil Action or Erin Brockovitch for example, we could have cheered for the real-life person. (John Travolta, by the way, is my nominee for the most underrated terrific actor in Hollywood.) But when it’s in-between we don’t know what to do.

“‘Lightning always strikes in the same place twice,’ said Mma Ramotswe. ‘Whatever people say to the contrary.’” – Alexander McCall Smith, The No. l Ladies’ Detective Agency.


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