Wednesday, May 2, 2007


History records a number of fiercely self-confident democracies that managed to survive against anti-democratic forces: Think of the quasi-democratic Athens that prevailed against the against the numerically superior ancient Persians (492 BCE), the fierce Finns who prevailed against the Soviets (1939-40) and the Churchill-era Brits who successfully held out against the Nazi Luftwaffe’s air raids, buzz bombs, and helped defeat the Nazi’s on the ground in North Africa and Europe (1939-1945). These were three (from a small number of) examples of highly patriotic nations (or of a city-state in the case of Athens) whose democratic ethos was strongly linked to nationalist pride. When it really mattered, Athens, Finland and England did not suffer from multicultural ambivalence, contempt for military prowess or the fog of internationalism.

The more complicated example is the Cold War between the West and the authoritarian socialist regimes in the USSR and in China. That war began in 1947 and when Soviet expansionism, the Greek civil war and Stalin’s pressure on Turkey to grant Russia a military base led to Truman’s containment doctrine. After the fall of China to the communists and the first successful Russian atomic bomb test (both in 1949), the world was essentially on a pre-world War III footing until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and President Yeltsin’s survival of a communist coup in 1991. During this 45 year standoff, there were several proxy wars, notably the Korean War (1950-53) and the Vietnam War (1959-1975), and a near nuclear exchange over atomic-bomb-fitted Russian missiles clandestinely installed in Cuba (1962). Throughout this period, nine U.S. presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush one) operated within a substantial consensus: The Russian and Sino-communist treats to democracy were real, deadly and must be resolutely resisted with deadly force as needed.

Nationalism and the lure of capitalist prosperity defeated authoritarian socialism. At root, Leninist communism was founded on an empirically falsifiable premise: It was supposed to work. Its failure demonstrated that the communist paradigm was not the wave of the future. Ultimately, large populations were not willing to subordinate nationalist pride to an internationalist model, especially when all the parades and strutting concealed a hollow core of bureaucratic ineptitude and ill concealed poverty.

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union and liberation of Eastern Europe, democratic forms of governance gained new purchase throughout the developing world. Predictably, many of the newest democracies have begun to fail because the underlying social, economic and legal infrastructure wasn’t sufficiently robust. The self confidence of the developed democracies has waned.

We can still assume that consensual governments (democracies and quasi-democracies) are “the wave of the future” but that the processes of democratic change may well be as protracted and dangerous as the Cold War. Here is the new problem in a nutshell: Democratic “social technologies” diffuse very slowly and their installation in former oligarchies will meet with strong resistance, but the deadly technologies of mass destruction will just follow the money.

This is why the oil oligarchies of the Middle East present the democratic West with a special case. Put crudely, oil revenues can buy a lot of Russian and German weapons’ scientists, but oil supply instabilities in the region are like a coronary thrombosis in the world’s aorta. We can’t afford to let unbalanced jihadists acquire deliverable WMD’s without risking Hiroshima-level civilian casualties, and we can’t afford a substantial disruption of the world’s oil supply without risking depression era level economic damage.

This is why the West’s level of support for democracy in the Middle East has been ambivalent at best. But the jihad has forced our hand. The specter of the jihad’s success in that sensitive region (remember that the announced goal is the replacement of every regime with radical Islamists) is real. That outcome would place the world’s developed democracies under a deadly double threat – political control of the oil flow and a larger proxy terror war protected by a nuclear umbrella. Instead of the MAD paradigm of the Cold War (a standoff between rational adversaries based on Mutually Assured Destruction), we might have to live with a far worse paradigm: NAM (an unstable standoff with a profoundly irrational adversary unafraid of the prospect of Nuclear Assisted Martyrdom). For the friends of democracy with clear vision, the Cold War years were the good old days.

In the current situation, many intelligent people in Europe and the US are stuck in the Cold War containment paradigm. This is a poor model to follow because of two overriding two factors: (1) Once in control of a state and its oil money and “properly armed”, the jihadists are equally dangerous in victory and defeat. (2) The national boundaries of democracies are inherently porous, and the fanatical martyrs back at jihad central may not be deterred by the threat of retaliation.

So we in the Western democracies have arrived at the moment of truth: We claim to love our ‘way of life”. Just how serious about its defense are we?

Internationalism will never be able to defend democracy until history produces a critical mass of democratic governments in charge of the key international institutions. We in the West cannot now rely on the United Nations – in its present form a toothless entity numerically dominated by non-democratic regimes – for the defense of our most cherished institutional arrangement – democratic governance.

Nor can we summon up the vital energies of nationalism from our contemporary populations, propagandized (as they are into post-colonial guilt) even to support the democratic liberation of the most repressive, atavistic regimes in the world.

Nor can we rest easy in the illusory security of our geographic isolation – on the other side of the pond. The internet-borne dispersal of weapons technology and the global economy have conspired to reduce the Atlantic and Pacific to the 21st century’s Maginot Line. {Ask occupied WW II France about illusory security.}

So we may live in denial, but the enemies of democracy don’t have that luxury: they “get it”. For our non-democratic enemies, our very liberal values and democratic arrangements make us their nemesis, even if we don’t want that role, or fail to fully realize the implications of having it thrust upon us.

We find it incomprehensible that someone would think that We must be stopped by any means necessary. In this situation, the “Why me, Lord?” question has a clear – if discomforting answer: Because evil chose you to destroy.

Democracy has never quite been enough, alone, to sustain a war for its own defense, let alone another long twilight struggle filed with a number of frustrating and inconvenient armed engagements. If we are to succeed over the next decade or so we’ll need to summon our fiercer angels. The graphic novelist, Frank Miller, whose latest creation was the movie “300”, put it this way in an NPR interview last year:

“Both of my parents were World War II veterans. FDR-era patriots. And I was exactly the age to rebel against them.

“It all fit together rather neatly. I could never stomach the flower-child twaddle of the ’60s crowd and I was ready to believe that our flag was just an old piece of cloth and that patriotism was just some quaint relic, best left behind us.

“It was all about the ideas. I schooled myself in the writings of Madison and Franklin and Adams and Jefferson. I came to love those noble, indestructible ideas. They were ideas, to my young mind, of rebellion and independence, not of idolatry.

“But not that piece of old cloth. To me, that stood for unthinking patriotism. It meant about as much to me as that insipid peace sign that was everywhere I looked: just another symbol of a generation’s sentimentality, of its narcissistic worship of its own past glories.

“Then came that sunny September morning when airplanes crashed into towers a very few miles from my home and thousands of my neighbors were ruthlessly incinerated — reduced to ash. Now, I draw and write comic books. One thing my job involves is making up bad guys. Imagining human villainy in all its forms. Now the real thing had shown up. The real thing murdered my neighbors. In my city. In my country. Breathing in that awful, chalky crap that filled up the lungs of every New Yorker, then coughing it right out, not knowing what I was coughing up.

“For the first time in my life, I know how it feels to face an existential menace. They want us to die. All of a sudden I realize what my parents were talking about all those years.

“Patriotism, I now believe, isn’t some sentimental, old conceit. It’s self-preservation. I believe patriotism is central to a nation’s survival. Ben Franklin said it: If we don’t all hang together, we all hang separately. Just like you have to fight to protect your friends and family, and you count on them to watch your own back.”

Frank Miller on NPR, 9-11-06



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