The disaster of US democratic imperialism

Democratic imperialism unleashed sectarian, ethnic and ideological fights that have set back the Middle East for a generation.
Sunday 20/01/2019
Cover of Andrew Bacevich's “America’s War for the Greater Middle East,” 2016.
New paradigm. Cover of Andrew Bacevich's “America’s War for the Greater Middle East,” 2016.

The United States has begun withdrawing its troops from Syria after US President Donald Trump pledged to disentangle his country from foreign wars.

Misgivings about Trump’s moves were shared across a broad spectrum of the Washington political establishment for whom democratic imperialism has become a way of life.

After 9/11, American neo-conservatives articulated a vision of foreign policy that favoured the use of force to impose democratic institutions on oppressed people on the pretext that, because people subjected to authoritarian rule are unable to determine their own fate, foreign powers have a moral obligation to forge their destiny for them.

Yet, as historian Andrew Bacevich noted, despite the relative strength of the US armed forces reaching its zenith in the post-Cold War era, the United States’ well-equipped, well-endowed, well-trained and highly disciplined troops have “been unable to accomplish any of the core tasks they have been assigned… We send troops off to war but they do not achieve peace. Instead, America’s wars and skirmishes simply drag on, seemingly without end.”

There are many reasons that explain this sorry state of affairs, not least that the armed services have been designed, Bacevich continued on a blog posted last April on, “not to defend the country but to project military power on a global basis… actually defending the United States qualifies as an afterthought. It trails behind other priorities such as trying to pacify Afghanistan’s Kandahar province or jousting with militant groups in Somalia.”

There are perhaps 800 US military bases around the world and the costs of running this policy have been hugely expensive, greatly adding to the nation’s debt.

Now consider the Middle East, which has been the focus of most US military activity over the past generation. The democratic imperialist ideal is predicated on the conviction that people across this vast region are culturally homogeneous, that their middle classes are strong and politically assertive, that their citizens are mindful of their duties to one another and that a social and institutional basis for democracy exists.

This analysis is flawed as senior British and French military commanders who opposed their respective countries from joining the United States in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 realised. Some commanders saw shortly after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that attempting to build democracy in that country was an act of folly, notwithstanding the democratic aspirations of many Afghanis.

Many people there could not agree on the essential contours of the nation, much less the basic nature of the state. Fundamentalists there, as across the Arab world, define “nation” in terms of a community of Muslim believers whose interpersonal relations are governed by Islamic law while nationalists define it as those who share a common language, culture and heritage, bound together by civil laws and secular institutions.

Minorities in Afghanistan, Iran and Arab countries define the nation in terms of their own peculiar sectarian traits, dominated by institutions that ensure proportional representation — the Copts in Egypt and Maronites in Lebanon illustrate the point.

Non-Arab minorities define it in linguistic cultural terms — the Berbers in Algeria offer a case in point.

Tunisia, which is religiously homogeneous and has no linguistic minorities, has accommodated a democratic debate since the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 not least because the revolt that toppled him was home grown, not encouraged or influenced from abroad. The Tunisian middle class is stronger than in most Arab countries and the influence of women has been greater than elsewhere in the region, due to their emancipation three generations ago under Habib Bourguiba.

The so-called Arab awakening posed a huge predicament to the United States. From having ignored democracy in the name of oil at the outset of “America’s War for the Greater Middle East,” the title of Bacevich’s 2016 book, the United States after 9/11 declared itself democracy’s greatest champion.

Not for the last time since the advent of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, US policymakers “concluded that eliminating a single bad actor is the key to solving a much larger problem,” Bacevich wrote in his book. Not for the last time US policy makers failed to grasp that there is no unifying aim to “the war against terrorism.”

There are other, deeper, reasons why the broader Arab world is not ripe for democracy.

The Arab and Berber, Kurdish, Sunni or Shia mind are perfectly capable of liberal thought but institutional and traditional social barriers constitute formidable obstacles to its realisation. They oppose the spirit of checks and balances, separation of church and state and individual freedoms that characterise most Western democracies.

The Middle East inherited from its Ottoman, Mamluk and caliphate predecessors a tradition of centralised bureaucracy and an authoritarianism symbolised by monarchs or military dictators for whom consolidating their power, suppressing the opposition and preserving economic privilege for clan were more important than economic and educational development for all.

Middle-class forces have remained weak when faced with military, monarchical, clerical or agrarian forces whose priorities are far removed from democracy.

Democratic rule does not simply rest on free elections. If they are not accompanied by institutional and economic reform, the result is stalemate, as Tunisia is discovering.

Free elections in Iraq handed power to the Shias and greater influence to Iran, exactly the opposite of what the US neo-conservatives had intended. In Egypt they are a blueprint for whoever holds the military.

Ahead of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, a senior US academic warned the chief of staff of the vice-president of the United States that free elections in Iraq would hand greater power to Iran.  “You understand history, we make it,” was the arrogant response of Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

Democratic imperialism unleashed sectarian, ethnic and ideological fights that have set back the Middle East for a generation. It has utterly failed to revitalise most countries it has visited.

Sectarian and ethnic strife, frustration and paralysis, the restoration of autocratic rule — these have been the consequences of a half-baked theory, which, from the start, contained the seeds of its own destruction.

Maybe Donald Trump is wiser than we think but it is odd is that, for a president whose doctrine is, very simply, being anti-Obama, his policy in Syria is not all that different than his predecessor’s.