Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Elections and Democratic Success

A major pillar of the US “war on terror,” the US led invasion of Iraq, intended to win over the “hearts and minds” of the Islamic population and rid the Middle East of terrorist “safe havens” through brute force and the promotion of democratic political systems. As Martha Crenshaw notes, this was an attempt to strike back at a form of “new terrorism” that was no longer characterized by state actors, but decentralized groups determined to oppose US hegemony abroad. Ultimately if US “success” in the Middle East is measured by the proliferation of democratic political systems, how will this affect the form of “new terrorism” described above? Does this strategy assume that a democratic Middle East will eliminate the roots of extremism? Do the Defense Adaptive Red Team’s (DART) metrics, specifically the focus on representative elections, really reveal a positive correlation between current US policies and democratic reform throughout the Middle East?

First let’s examine the progress reports hailed by Colonel Gary Anderson as obvious successes of US policy in the Middle East. Colonel Anderson sites the progress of “representative governments” of Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Egypt. Four out of these five countries can be labeled “illiberal democracies” which are not exactly democratic in nature. It is true that each of these countries have had successful “elections” but only the election in Lebanon can be touted as a true democratic success. In Lebanon, the people freely (and peacefully) expressed themselves and consequently affected the political landscape. For the US to truly measure democratic success we must look much farther than simply the ability to cast a vote.

Casting a ballot does not automatically transform a political system into a liberal democracy, nor is it a legitimate measure of success, effective checks and balances or constitutionally guaranteed/protected freedoms. For example, in Iran’s recent presidential election Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received 60% of the vote. As Michael Ignatieff notes, when the Iranian populous was forced to choose between reformers that advocated democracy and human rights “The slums of Tehran voted for a man who advocated stricter discipline for women, tougher theocratic rule and state control of the economy.” Therefore a very “successful” election enabled a former member of the Revolutionary Guard to grab the reins of leadership in Iran. Was the election democratic? Yes. In the sense that voters turned out and voted for a candidate listed on the official ballot sheet. Is Iran a beacon of liberal democracy in the world? No. Then how can democratic elections be an effective measure of US success?

The difference here is between what Ignateiff describes as minimal democracy and maximal democracy. I think we can all agree that Iran is not a democracy. Sure they have popularly elected officials (housed within the Majles) but decision-making power remains in the hands of a single man, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and freedom is drastically limited by the ruling mullahs. It is a classic case of minimal democracy. On the other hand, what is meant by maximal democracy? Maximal democracy is described as “elections plus rule of law, bills of rights and checks and balances.” Americans should be very familiar with this description of liberal democracy. This should be the measure of American success within the Middle East, not premature jubilation over mere elections. But this also raises an even more complex problem for US strategists.

What types of democracy will be prevalent within countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt? Will future democratically elected Muslim regimes (on the road to maximal liberal democracy) be hostile to US interests in the long term? Can the US and the West accept governments with an Islamist tinge that may incorporate religion into politics? These are all very tough questions that should be discussed in great detail if US policy is to establish true democracies in the Middle East. Currently, it seems as though most Americans simply assume that Middle Eastern democracy will be a mirror image of the secular, western parliamentary system. This will most likely not be the case. Additionally, as we are now witnessing in Europe, (Madrid, London, etc) true democratic systems allow the freedom of movement that decentralized, asymmetric threats thrive upon. It is much harder for terrorists/insurgents/global jihadists to operate in an oppressive police state, Saudi Arabia for instance (The Royal Family’s survivability depends on the destruction of extremist elements), than in a free society.

Martha Crenshaw. “Why America? The Globalization of Civil War.” Current History, December 2001, 6.

Michael Ignatieff. "Iranian Lessons." New York Times, July 17, 2005.

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