For decades, but especially following the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. government has tried to promote the establishment of democracies in the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere around the globe.
This should come as no surprise. Centers for the Study of Democracy have become an integral feature of universities throughout the United States and Western Europe. They replaced older schools of realpolitik that used to be taught. Professors, politicians, and international organizations aggressively promote the doctrine of democracy.
In the West, democracy closely follows sustainability, diversity, and reducing income and wealth inequality as a moral imperative. The dozens of democracy centers in universities and think tanks house many distinguished scholars, but they have a tendency to act as cheerleaders for democracy. They seek to promote democracy as a universal prescription for almost every country, regardless of its history and culture.
In recent years, democracy has fallen on hard times in numerous countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. To address this problem, in 2013 Stanford University inaugurated a Program on American Democracy in Comparative Democracy. Its purpose is "to seek to understand problems such as ineffective governance, gridlock and polarization, and declining trust in institutions in the United States." It seems that one reason for the failed effort to promote democracy abroad may be rooted in the faults of American democracy itself. (More on this later.)
Why did President George W. Bush believe, after the invasion, overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and occupation of Iraq in 2003, that he could establish a viable democracy within the artificial borders of Iraq that were drawn by the colonial powers after World War I? Sunnis and Shiites have been at each other’s throats for centuries. Kurds have wanted their own independent homeland. Christians largely lived in relative peace, posing no threat to Sunnis, Shiites, or Kurds.
Bush evidently believed that the desire for democracy beats in the heart of all peoples, regardless of their history and culture. But it was a bridge too far to try to establish democracy in multi-ethnic Iraq, which only knew dictators, oligarchs, and tribal leaders, and lacked any traditions of the rule of law, individual rights and civil liberties. Bush’s intervention resulted in massive ethnic cleansing of more than a million Christians from their long settled homes in Iraq.
To be fair, Bush could hardly believe otherwise. For the past 40 years, diversity and multiculturalism have been official doctrine in America’s universities. This was the intellectual environment in which President Bush was educated, elected governor of Texas and then president of the United States. Democracy has been viable in America, which has the shared traditions of civil liberties, individual rights, the rule of law, private property, and constitutional government, although America is fast becoming a collage of ethnic identities: African-Americans, Spanish-speaking Americans, Native-Americans, and a plethora of Western European-Americans.
In marked contrast with America, Sunnis, Shias and Kurds only have a shared history of national unity based on the imposition of force by one or an alliance of two over the others. Either no one told Bush that the America model could not be successfully exported to Iraq and serve as an example for other Muslim Arab and North African regimes, or he chose not to listen. Either way, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, followed by elections in which Shias voted in a government representing Shia interests, unleashed a hell of Sunnis vs. Shias, Kurds protecting their own territory from both and Turkey, and the growth of Al-Qaeda and rise of ISIS.
The tragedy of Bush’s folly, greater than the cost of several trillion dollars and thousands of American casualties, has been the ethnic cleansing of more than a million Christians from their homes in Iraq by Islamists since the invasion in 2003.
President Barack Obama’s deposing Libyan ruler Colonel Kaddafi compounded Bush’s folly. Kaddafi’s overthrow unleashed tribal war in Libya, along with the rise of ISIS and its affiliates (Boko Haram, Al-Shahab, etc.) throughout North Africa. Obama’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, although the regime lasted only a year, led to killing of Coptic Christians and burning of their churches, until Egypt’s military took power and restored order.
Christians are under assault in Syria as well. In the 1920s, Christians amounted to about 30% of the population, declining to about 10% today. Estimates put the number of Christians who have fled Syria or been displaced in the hundreds of thousands. Whole Christian villages have been destroyed and dozens of churches damaged.
Ethnic cleansing of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa is one of the great tragedies of the twenty-first century. Today, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Chad, and other Middle Eastern and North African countries do not enjoy democracy, stability or prosperity.
Hussein, Kaddafi, Mubarak, and Assad were not and are not paragons of virtue. But what has followed is worse and the worst may be yet to come.
Those who propose to intervene in foreign countries to replace autocracy or other forms of authoritarian rule with democracy first need to produce a comprehensive, proven blueprint for a successful post-intervention transition to democracy. The Bush and Obama administrations did not produce any such plans for Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
We have learned that the Democrat Party’s regime of super delegates, coupled with the Wikileaks email dump of the nefarious activities of the Democrat National Committee, insured the nomination of Hillary Clinton from the very beginning. Bernie Sanders never had a chance. Democracy as practiced by the Democrat Party made a mockery of real, one man-one vote democracy, which was the political ideal that Bush and his aides proposed to bring to the Middle East.
Well then. If U.S. political party insiders can impose rules to cheat rival candidates of the opportunity to compete in a fair election, so too can elected leaders in one-party states, or who jail opposing candidates, and impose other rules that narrow the franchise in African, Asian, or Latin American elections, as the case may be.
What happened in democracy studies parallels what happened in the economics profession as it failed to anticipate the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession it spawned. Perhaps a bit of humility is in order before we try to remake foreign political systems.
Something new has emerged in the democracy madness arena, namely, suggestions to transform America’s stable two-party democracy into a (unstable) multi-party democracy.
Some democracy specialists suggest that the unpopularity of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as seen in the high negatives of both candidates means that third-party candidates should be given greater latitude in meeting the requirements to run for president. These include a lower percentage threshold of 5% instead of 15% in public opinion polls to qualify for the autumn presidential debates. Another proposed change would make it easier to qualify for the ballot in all 50 states. And so on.
The U.S. has experienced third parties in some elections, but these have had little chance of success, mainly serving as spoilers for one of the two main parties.
But any set of changes that enhances the prospects for third parties would be disastrous in the United States. It would give rise to ethnic politics, spawning a Black party, a Spanish-speaking party, an Asian American party, and several White parties. Leaders in each group would seek power by promising to be the strongest defender and promoter of their groups’ interests, giving rise to extremists in each group. The U.S. would join the ranks of unstable “plural societies.”
It’s bad enough that the democracy promoters have destabilized the Middle East. Now they want changes that would threaten to destabilize the United States. None of this would be happening if the liberal professoriate were certain that Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump. But their fear that Trump could become president is leading them to propose changes that could undermine the most successful democracy in history. Democracy promoters love democracy—until they don’t like the outcome of the democracy they profess to admire.
In August 2016, your friendly proprietor addressed a group of Chinese scholars. I asked if they thought the 200,000 or so Chinese students studying in the United states would return to China having observed the 2016 U.S. presidential election during their stay in America, and urge Chinese President Xi Jinping to adopt U.S.-style democracy. They all broke out in laughter.