Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Idealistic Certainty: Waging War to Promote Democracy

Update: February 28, 2008 @ 6:26am

I made this initial post back in 2006. Today I was reading the Fishbowl NY blog. They announced that Buckley passed away.



I never thought I’d quote William F. Buckley, Jr. However, he has a newly released editorial named One Flag Too High that, in some parts, says exactly what needs to be said. I think that’s noteworthy because it’s coming from an old boy conservative and not from a left wing liberal.

President Bush is a victim of his idealistic certitudes. These have their place. It is hard to imagine how Great Britain would have survived the year 1942 without Churchill's apocalyptic reassurances, never mind that when they were spoken, they must have been the cause of laughter in the Nazi high command, which brought them in via radio antennas sitting on top of the Eiffel Tower. The problem has been that without Bush's high calls for global political reform, the American public would have gone along only reluctantly with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And enthusiasm for these wars is now flagging because we have assured ourselves that we aren't there to choke off nuclear arms development. We are there to save the locals from the kind of government they would have if left to their own resources.

We are struggling hard, but not hard enough, to reanimate our far-flung missions abroad. The distortions are by no means exclusively the result of Republican shortsightedness. We are acting out, in Iraq and Afghanistan, ideologies that trace back to the universalization of the American creed. We pronounced, in the Declaration of Independence, ideals we conceived of as universally appealing, but which no one had the least intention of exporting beyond the boundaries of the newly independent country.

Buckley goes on to discuss many issues connected to this from Woodrow Wilson's idealistic goals of spreading the idea of liberal democracy worldwide through the League of Nations, which is the predecessor of the United Nations, to the steady rise of Islamic fundamentalism in spite of the US’s deep and expensive involvement in both Israel and Egypt.

I don’t agree with everything Buckley has to say. In particular, the comment at the end, which I didn't quote, about religion strikes me as inherently polarizing and divisive because the US is not just a Christian nation. The US is a nation built on Christian ideas as the settlers from England were Christian. However, the pull of America is freedom. Freedom is a universal idea and no group or religion has a monopoly on it. Furthermore, for a very long time America has absorbed citizens from every corner of the globe and, therefore, it has citizens culled from various cultures and religions. We are nation with not only Christians but also Catholics, Jews, Muslims, pagans, agnostics, atheists, etc. Therefore, I’m not sure how many of us would line up for a 21st century version of the Crusades.

In spite of that weak point, his initial point of Bush's steadfast crusade to export democracy is dead on. It's one thing to be an American child who is taught in an American classroom about the virtues of American-style democracy. It's another thing to be an American adult trying to force that on citizens of other nation-states. This has been one of my biggest objections to the Bush administration’s approach to international conflict. You can’t export democracy by force.

Democracy develops when people think. When you’re facing down a platoon coming into your neighborhood you’re not thinking about the democratic freedom that might follow. You’re thinking about making sure you don’t get killed or otherwise humiliated by your invader. Democracy comes and has staying power when the people themselves fight for it. From those upstart settlers in the new land rebelling against a tyrannical English king to the protesters in countries all over the world calling for democracy, the people have to want a democratic society.

I’m not saying people don’t want democracy in Iraq or Afghanistan. Only the people of those countries can show the world that democracy is what they want. It just seems that their want for democracy is lukewarm at best which leaves the US waving the flag when others want to burn it.

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  1. Interesting link!

    I think Buckley is right that America should "lower the flag", but for different reasons.

    In addition to the practical reason that you expressed - you can't export democracy by force, there is an ethical/public relations reason to lower the flag.

    It is frankly hypocritical and embarrassing to be trumpeting democracy and rule of law in certain specific foreign countries when the Administration and Congress seems to be doing its best to dismantle it at home and internationally.

    This government has eroded the Geneva Conventions; it has undermined the UN - the one international political organization that might actually stand a chance (or at this point might have stood a chance, depending on your point of view) of creating sustainable democratic institutions and political stability; it has spied on its own citizens, pushing to the limits if not outright flouting the bill of rights (yes, that thing that Buckley says "one associates with organically secure liberal societies"); and on and on.


  2. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    I totally agree with the other points you made. It's just that if you read my other posts you know I'm writing a lot. So for the sake of keeping it short, I decided to stick just with Buckley's editorial.

    Thanks for adding the points I skipped. There are many reasons why the Bush administration's democracy lectures are ringing hollow.


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