About ten years ago Fareed Zakaria wrote The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. Zakaria has been dismissed as many things, in particular being a sort of middlebrow establishmentarian voice who can be relied upon to package the latest safest conventional wisdom in stylish erudition, and still remain palatable to a non-scholarly audience. But he does deserve credit for putting the concept of “illiberal democracy” in front of the reading American public. Those with any sort of historical perspective won’t be surprised by the basic definition of illiberal democracy, because it is an ancient idea which simply been given a catchy name. Tyrannical majoritarianism manipulated by demagogues is one of the reasons that Greek democracy generally had a bad reputation until the past few centuries. The republican form of government enacted by Rome differed starkly from the populist direct democracy of Athens, integrating aspects of representation of the majority over time, at least symbolically*, balanced with customary protections of the individual liberty of citizens, in particular those of high standing.** American representative democracy in its populist guise itself is not something which characterized the founding, but crystallized as the conclusion of decades of faction during the “Age of Jackson” in the 1830s. Though in practice periods of populism have alternated with domination by elites since that era, the rhetoric remained explicitly democratic. Legitimacy only comes from the will of the people, broadly understood.
But this issue is not one of history alone, it confronts us today. By turning our faces away from the messy reality of how Americans came to arrive at their liberal democracy, what they believe ought to be practiced in the world today, we misjudge how easy that practice can be imposed on other societies. In 2003 the Bush administration was incredibly naive about how easy it would be to foster the development of a genuine nation-state in Iraq. And yet consider that just a few years ago the United States was instrumental in the overthrow of an autocrat in Libya, in the hopes that he might be replaced by a better form of government. Today both Libya an Iraq are in chaos. Have we learned nothing? This situation is unfortunate, but all too predictable. Similarly, I have long said that though I am skeptical of the prospects for a robust democracy in much of the Middle East, the conditions are most optimal in Tunisia. And sure enough it is in Tunisia where the likelihood of a genuine nation-state built around liberal democratic ideals still seems most possible, despite social tensions and Islamist violence. Similarly, I think it is important to note that of the former “Eastern Bloc” states there was a separation in historical-cultural terms between those which were oriented toward the West (e.g., the Czech Republic) and those which had not been part of the West before joining the European Union (e.g., Bulgaria). Though this does not mean that liberal democracy is impossible in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic is more likely to produce fewer impediments to this form of political organization since it has endogenously arrived in earlier periods to this form of politics.
I am entering into this morass of complexity mostly to suggest that our American understanding of “good guys” and “bad guys” only makes sense when we simplify our own history into a fiction, and the history of others, and narrow the range of possibilities of human existence into what we believe ought to be. As of this writing a radical Sunni fundamentalist army is reshaping the Middle East, and explicitly putting before us the specter of sectarian conflict on a grand scale. Arrayed against this is a state which Americans have played an essential role in creating and propping up, moderately democratic, but sectarian and illiberal in its impulses. And, this state has had a long standing relationship in positive terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Americans, unable to grapple with our histories, are simply not equipped to enter into this game of sects played out against the most ancient of civilizational backgrounds. There are no “good guys” and “bad guys.”
Our inability to grapple with this reality frankly is partly a function of the fact that we (well, at least most Americans, and rhetorically all politicians) have not confronted that the American state has forwarded interests which are explicitly in contradiction with our liberal democratic values. Judged in a vacuum it seems clear to me that the Islamic Republic of Iran is closer to a liberal democracy that the state run by the House of Saud. And yet Saudi Arabia has been an American ally for decades, despite its illiberal values. This is not a deep dark secret, but the implications of how closely we hew to our values in foreign lands is often not frankly addressed in public. Our support of pro-American autocrats has a long history, and continues to this day.
This is all to set up my conclusion that no matter what establishment voices assert intervention in foreign lands in a ham-handed fashion to prop up our American values is bound to lead us down a path of tears. As Shadi Hamid states the future of democracy in the Middle East is going to be illiberal. This may be inevitable. We don’t need to avert our eyes from it, and we need to acknowledge that so we were, so they will be. It took the Thirty Years war to finally purge the enthusiasm of sectarianism from the cultural DNA of Europeans (and even then, religious minorities were second class citizens for centuries). There will be no calm reasoning with Iraqis of any stripe because the march of history continues, and only sadness can convince all parties that moderation is necessary for the existence of modern nation-states. Intervention in some fashion may be inevitable in the world, but our goal should be to prevent hell, not to create heaven on earth. The former is possible, the latter is not.
* Since the weight of the votes of urban tribes was low, in effect the republic did not reflect the will of the people.
** The Roman conquest of Greece resulted in the abolition of the democracies and their enforcement of redistribution of resources from the elites to the masses through public liturgies.
*** Not only was America not a liberal democracy fully formed, but Britain was not tyrannical, nor were British rationales for taxation entirely without merit.
**** With the exception of individuals such as Frederick Douglass or Susan B. Anthony.