Democracy everywhere?

Posted: Aug 17, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- U.S. warships carrying 2,300 Marines are off Liberia's coast, U.S. forces still are in harm's way in Afghanistan and U.S. military deaths in Iraq are, as this is written, just nine short of the total before President Bush declared major combat operations over. But some people think America is underengaged abroad.

For example, the presidents of Oxfam America and Refugees International, writing in The Washington Post in support of intervention in Liberia, urge the Bush administration to confront ``head-on'' many crises: ``Central Asia, the Balkans and Western Africa are areas of the world that provide too many examples of what happens when U.S. power is not used proactively.'' Such incitements to foreign policy hyperkinesis can draw upon the messianic triumphalism voiced by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in last month's address to a rapturous Congress:

``There is a myth that though we love freedom, others don't; that our attachment to freedom is a product of our culture; that freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law are American values, or Western values; that Afghan women were content under the lash of the Taliban; that Saddam was somehow beloved by his people; that Milosevic was Serbia's savior. ...

``Ours are not Western values, they are the universal values of the human spirit. And anywhere, anytime ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same: freedom, not tyranny; democracy, not dictatorship; the rule of law, not the rule of the secret police."

Neoconservatives seem more susceptible than plain conservatives are to such dodgy rhetoric and false assertions.

Disregard Blair's straw men: no one says Afghan women were ``content," Saddam was ``beloved" and Milosevic was a ``savior." But Blair suggests that unless you believe such preposterous things, you surely believe that "freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law" are not exclusively Western values. But what does that mean?

Certainly not only Westerners value, or can come to value, those things. But certainly not everyone everywhere shares ``our attachment to freedom." Freedom is not even understood the same way everywhere, let alone valued the same way relative to other political goods (equality, security, piety, etc.).

Does Blair believe that our attachment to freedom is not the product of complex and protracted acculturation by institutions and social mores that have evolved over centuries that prepared the social ground for seeds of democracy? When Blair says freedom as we understand it and democracy and the rule of law as we administer them are ``the universal values of the human spirit," he is not speaking as America's Founders spoke of ``self-evident" truths. They meant truths obvious to all minds unclouded by superstition and other ignorance.

Blair seems to think: Boston, Baghdad, Manchester, Monrovia -- what's the difference? Such thinking is dangerous. Blair's argument is true only if it is trivial: ``Ordinary" people choose freedom, democracy and the rule of law because those who do not so choose prove thereby that they are not ordinary.

But there are a lot of them in the world. Some of them are waging guerrilla war against American forces in Iraq.

Blair's thinking is Bush's, too. ``There is a value system that cannot be compromised, and that is the values we praise," says President Bush. ``And if the values are good enough for our people, they ought to be good enough for others."

But one must compromise in the face of facts, those stubborn things. It is a fact that not everyone is inclined to praise ``the values we praise." And not every society has the prerequisites -- of institutions (political parties, media) and manners (civility, acceptance of pluralism) -- of a free society.

Bush and Blair and many people called neoconservatives believe that moral objectives in politics are universally applicable imperatives. If so, then either national cultures do not significantly differ; or they do not matter; or they are infinitely malleable under the touch of enlightened reformers. But all three propositions are false, and antithetical to all that conservatism teaches about the importance of cultural inertia and historical circumstances.

Blair followed the passage quoted above with these words of Lincoln's: ``Those that deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves." Lincoln's subject was Americans' complicity in American slavery. But Blair's muddled implication is that a nation that refuses to use force on behalf of all unfree people is denying them freedom.

The premise that terrorism thrives where democracy doesn't may seem to generate a duty to universalize democracy. But it is axiomatic that one cannot have a duty to do something that cannot be done.