As sectarian violence in the Middle East increases, as Iraq falls further into the orbit of Iran, as Afghanistan seems poised to hand over its corrupt democracy to terrorists and Taliban murderers, and as American interests and lives are sacrificed to the depredations of the so-called Arab Spring, it might be worthwhile to take stock of what these unfolding debacles mean for neoconservatives and our attachment to democracy’s expansion.

We should begin with Iraq, where our most recent foray into democratic nation-building began.

I was, from the start of the campaign to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein, both a supporter of our efforts there and an actor on the ground. I first went to Iraq in the summer of 2003 as a civilian working for the Pentagon and was in Iraq for the better part of the last decade, having finally left at the end of 2010. I was certain, from the first day of Shock and Awe, that the war was good and that our planting the seeds of democratic rule in that part of the world was very good. Because I tended to believe that all people yearn for freedom and deserve to govern themselves, I thought that what we were attempting was good for Iraq and all Iraqis. Moreover, because I looked forward to seeing a democratic nation rise out of the ruins of a Ba’athist tyranny, I thought we were surely raising up a future international friend, perhaps even an ally for America. And, since I knew that liberal democracies rarely war against other liberal states, I had hopes that a friendly, freedom-loving democracy would be good for peace in a region that had not seen much peace.

Yet it soon became apparent that the chasm between our expectations and the political reality was daily growing wider. We were, to be sure, steadily advancing some type of democracy in Iraq. There were parties and elections and the writing of a constitution. But the peace, the toleration, the personal liberties, the moderation of violent passions we hoped would follow in the wake of democracy’s advent were almost nowhere in evidence. Something clearly was going wrong.

This was brought home to me not long after I first went to Iraq, when I met a number of Iraqi parliamentarians charged with putting together their new constitution. We spent three intensive days talking about representation, taxation, federalism, rights, religious freedom—the whole range of issues we all knew the new Iraq would need to address. At one point I said something I took to be obvious—that the reason to take such pains in writing the new constitution was to assure that Iraq would have a good democracy and not a bad one.

One of the Iraqi participants looked at me as if I had just uttered something not only mistaken but astounding. He raised his hand and said he didn’t—couldn’t—believe what he had just heard. How could there be such a thing as a bad democracy? Wasn’t America always telling everyone how good democracy was? Wasn’t that the reason the Iraqis were there—to get rid of their old ways and usher in democracy?

Given the level of discourse of almost all Americans with political authority whom I knew, he was right to be taken aback. What then was general American excitement regarding the possibilities of a democratic Iraq—which would beget an even wider enthusiasm over the Arab Spring—would surely have led anyone to think that increasing the number of democracies worldwide was a pillar of American foreign policy and in itself most desirable. What was begun in good measure by neoconservative theorists and promoted by the Bush administration later became the cornerstone of American foreign policy under the next administration. To both of them, conservative and liberal, the promotion of democracy worldwide seemed indeed a very good thing.

How different this optimism is from the state of affairs just a few decades before, when more sober views prevailed and nearly everyone understood that there were good democracies and bad democracies. Once, every schoolchild knew that our democratic revolution, which culminated in national independence and our democratic Constitution, was good—and that the highly democratic French Revolution, which culminated in the Terror and the guillotine, was bad. But today there are those who cheer every movement abroad toward democratization without thinking whether the democracy being created is liberal or repressive, moderate or fanatical, good or bad.*

So what led me to rethink the view that the coming of democracy to Iraq, and subsequently to the whole Middle East and beyond, would be a very good thing? First, the clear-sightedness of many of the Iraqis I worked with in Baghdad, especially those who were secular Muslims or belonged to religious or ethnic minorities. Unlike we Americans, they knew that democracy is simply another form of arranging power. They understood the obvious: Democracy is a means, sometimes a good means and sometimes a bad means, to reach the real goals of political life—peace, prosperity, justice, liberty, and security.

But, we Americans insisted, those things would all follow in democracy’s wake. It was through democracy that the good results of political life would become real. We seemed convinced of two things: First, that democracy is the form of government under which all men are meant to live, and that democracy, unlike autocracy of any kind, is just in itself. Being just, it includes in its very essence the ideas of freedom, equality, protection of rights, and toleration. Democracy is natural, democracy is how men achieve just political life, and, most surely, democracy means freedom.

Second, we constantly gave the impression that democratic government, being natural, is easy. Throw off the tyrant, overturn the ruling class, write a constitution, hold elections, and voilà—Democracy.

In all this, we betrayed an understanding that was alien to our own country’s democratic beginnings as well as removed from any reading of history, ancient or modern. To be seduced by the rising tide of democracy worldwide, one had to block from view the democratic election in Gaza, where a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of its sovereign neighbor won the day. One had to forget that a quasi-military rule in Pakistan was overthrown and that the new and more democratic government now plays the role of double agent in the war on terrorism while working to further destabilize an already unstable Afghanistan. One had to forget that in a more democratic Afghanistan, not one Christian institution—church, charitable organization, school—remains and “apostasy” is truly punishable by death. Perhaps one might want to look at the democratic mobs in Libya executing all blacks they capture, both men and women; or the mobs in Egypt burning Coptic churches or rallying almost daily for the destruction of Israel. And all this before the latest attacks on American consulates and embassies and the taking of American lives.


So what went wrong? How could so many thoughtful and politically savvy Americans—including so many of my neoconservative comrades—hold a view whose consequences seem so not conducive to freedom, to security, or to peace? How could so many otherwise careful readers of history, students of Lincoln, Tocqueville, and devotees of the thought of the American Founders—who were nothing if not careful about remedying the serious shortcomings of democratic rule—be so blasé about spreading democracy wherever?*

Let me begin somewhat superficially: I think, first, that our understanding of government was defective. Perhaps because of the success we have had in America with democracy, we now imagine that democratic government doesn’t have to be crafted, but can merely be willed into being.

But what we are learning the hard way in the Middle East is that there is little in politics harder to create than a just and stable democracy. Nothing takes more art, more human effort, and more intelligence to design than a good democracy. Autocracy is easy; rule by tyrants or elders or mobs is easy. But a liberal and just democracy is hard to make and even harder to maintain.

What else about government did we fail to understand? Well, the most obvious mistake was to make so easy an elision, so easy an identification, between democracy and freedom. I wrote above that the flourishing of liberal democracies worldwide was good for both our own security and the safety of free countries everywhere. But the operative term is “liberal democracies,” not simply “democracies.”

There is little else clearer in today’s politics than the fact that what we have encouraged, supported, and even fought and died for in the Middle East are not liberal democracies. Women, secularists, and Christians are increasingly harassed, and even within the predominant regional culture itself we see smaller Islamic, tribal, and ethnic minorities persecuted every day. Our notion that the overthrow of autocracy and the coming of democracy meant also the coming of freedom was simply wrong. Yes, we neoconservatives could point to the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet hegemony, or liberal democracy-building in Germany and Japan after World War II, or even the wonderful success of the civil rights movement here in America to prove that all peoples wish to live in freedom. Yet those examples seem not to carry us to the facts that we see around us today.

But why? “Don’t all people yearn for freedom?” we have asked. And we assume the answer is yes. But the answer is no. Some people, perhaps most people, prefer other goods. Indeed, some people would rather be holy than free, or safe than free, or be instructed in how they should lead their lives rather than be free. Many prefer the comfort of strong answers already given rather than the openness and hazards of freedom. There are those who would never dream of substituting their will for the imam’s or pushing their desires over the customs and traditions of their families. Some men kiss their chains.

As good Americans, we may wish to say that all people deserve freedom. But to say that all people desire it is flat-out wrong.

Nevertheless, to ask “Don’t all men want to be free?” is to ask exactly the wrong question. The right question is “Do you want your neighbors to be free?” If the answer is “My neighbor worships false gods” or “My neighbor’s tribe is full of thieves and assassins and needs to be exterminated” or “My neighbor’s views will lead this nation to eternal damnation,” then you can be certain that the raw material upon which a truly free and liberal democracy is to be built is not there.

Democracy, we need to understand, is rule by the people. Democracy more than any other government takes on the character of its people. But if the people are intolerant or rabidly sectarian, if they are accustomed to being told how to live instead of making their own futures, if they see all human exchanges as zero-sum games, with every neighbor’s success a subtraction from their own—or if there’s no patriotism, no real love of neighbor, no willingness to compromise—then it is close to impossible for liberal democracy to take root among that people.

So far this essay has been a meditation on two problems we have faced in trying to spread liberal democracy abroad. The first is political: We have understood, ever since the Founding, that the protection and growth of liberty require certain institutions, certain political arrangements. We are attached to a checked and balanced government, an independent judiciary, a written Constitution with an enforceable Bill of Rights, calendared elections, federalism, local government, vibrant civic institutions, and above all the separation of church and state not only because they are ours but because, through their efficacy, we have enabled decent and free government to flourish. Are all these same institutions necessary everywhere? Of course not. But some way of politically moderating and checking excessive majority power is vital if democracy is to have any hope of being temperate, tolerant, and just.

Beside institutions, the most important political ingredient in democratic freedom, as James Madison so carefully argued, is pluralism. If the nation is a divided rather than a pluralistic nation, liberal democracy will fail. It doesn’t matter if the division is between a few rich and the many poor, or between Catholics and Protestants, or between farmers and ranchers, or between believers and infidels. Wherever there is a majority side with passionate interests and a smaller minority side, the minority will consistently lose.* Sadly, in the various “Arab Spring” nations, divisions are everywhere, and pluralism is all too rare.

But if half the problem is political, the other, and far more bedeviling, half is cultural. We political scientists have something of a professional fiction. We think that the type of government people live under shapes their culture. Indeed, we believe that political life shapes human character. So, we think that aristocracies produce people with aristocratic desires, that tyrannies produce a culture of fear and dependency with slavish or vicious subjects, and that democracies produce people who are peaceful, and understanding of difference. But this might simply be backwards. I was always struck by Alexis de Tocqueville’s comment that Americans were on the way to being a democratic people long before establishing a democratic government. We served on colonial juries where we listened to both sides before we rendered judgment on our fellow citizens. We had professional, civic, and social institutions that taught us how to work together. We fought the Revolutionary War against the British Crown, a war in which perhaps a third of our citizens were on the British side and yet after the war there were no show trials, no recriminations, no mass graves. To do it the other way around—to begin with a democratic government and hope for a people with a democratic outlook and habits to grow as a result—is more often than not a fool’s errand.

The left, which speaks often about the importance of diversity, multiculturalism, and culture, should understand this matter better than the right does. Yet, while liberals may claim to see the formative nature of culture, they rarely go beyond superficialities. Sometimes the remnants of a lazy Marxism take over, giving the left the handy but false excuse that poverty, joblessness, or capitalist exploitation cause tumult and war. The left, it seems, would rather have us celebrate other cultures than understand them, for understanding them might lead us to judging, or even opposing, them. Above all, despite their attachment to the virtues of multiculturalism, rarely will the left admit that culture—especially religious culture—shapes a nation and shapes a people’s character.

Yet it is the character of a culture that shapes the aspirations of its citizens and the nature of its democracy. A culture in which there is little religious or intellectual freedom, where adherence to the commands of imams or religious scholars is sacrosanct, a culture that believes its duty before God is to punish dissent, kill apostates, and exterminate God’s supposed enemies, a culture in which there is no deep acceptance of difference—such cultures will produce illiberal souls who are hardly strong candidates to form a truly liberal and free democracy.

Nor is the right without fault in this matter. Neoconservatives especially, with their insistence on the universality of human nature and human desires and the secondary character of culture, fail to see the true centrality of culture in shaping human life. All too often we rail against multiculturalism and proclaim that the important thing to know is that all men share a common human nature. We are the first to proclaim that just as fire burns in Hellas as it does in Persia, so is it true that human beings are the same, deep down, the world over.

But culture and custom are, as Pascal wrote in Pensées, “a second nature.” Culture is not just something that affects how we dress and what we eat and how we look at the world. It is something with the force of human nature itself. Culture—especially, today, religious culture—determines a people’s outlook and aspirations, what it holds to be just and what it holds to be dishonorable.

While conservatives may be correct in saying that justice and rights are universal and that good and evil are independent of historical circumstance or of any person’s cultural outlook, the fact remains that what a person believes is just and unjust—and what leads him to act is always shaped more by his culture than by the truth objectively understood. That is, while the love of justice might be natural to all humanity, the content and meaning of that justice is far more often decided by custom and culture than by argument and philosophy. What people know, and what they act on, is what their culture—again, especially their religious culture—tells them is good or evil, noble or shameful. How is it that we Americans always seem to confuse what we’ve learned through our religions, our history, and our moral stories with universal human commands? The simple fact is that freedom and democracy have political, social, and cultural preconditions, and there are some nations, many nations, where the preconditions for just and free democratic rule are absent.


How sanguine should we be about the prospects for liberal democracies in the world? If history is any guide, what will ultimately happen is that the tumultuousness of the Arab Spring will probably not lead to a calm or steady growth of democratic life but will make life messier. The partisans of the old regime, the military, the secularists and liberals, and some religious and tribal minorities will continue to clash with Islamists of different stripes and with whatever the predominant ethnic or tribal group turns out to be. What was intended to bring order and stability to the region will bring about exactly the opposite: a mix of instability and repression.

But politics abhors instability. Anarchy, chaos, is never a lasting order. Soon new orders will arise, but they will not be democratic. For all our giddiness over the Arab Spring, we will soon see these nations (including, sadly, Iraq and especially Afghanistan) turn back to where they began: repressive rule by strongmen or party or religious despots. The only difference is that America will have lost whatever allies she may have had under formerly tyrannical regimes, harmed a number of our short-range national interests, and perhaps even done permanent damage to our few true allies in the region.

But not all is irretrievably lost. Nations and people do change. Religious toleration was not always the hallmark of the West. It grew out of the unmitigated horrors of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries coupled with the growth of commerce and the development of liberal and tolerant philosophy. We have even seen in the last century nominally Islamic strongmen promote the education and liberation of women, protect religious minorities, and work to secularize everyday life. Culture is ferociously powerful, but it can change.

Sadly, trying to promote democracy in a nation that is strongly sectarian, intolerant of difference, and skeptical of the equality that gives dignity and freedom to all might do more to hinder than advance democracy.

Should America continue its attempt to spread democracy abroad? Only in the most limited of circumstances, and only when we stop reflexively thinking that every mob that pits itself against autocratic rulers is made of “heroes and patriots.” Do the people we would aid appreciate freedom, and would they be ready to fight for it? More important, are they ready to fight for the freedom of their fellow citizens and be able to live and work with them? Are they willing to live under a government and under a rule of law that empowers and restrains the democratic majority? Are they, moreover, eager to live in peace with their foreign neighbors? If the answer to all those questions is yes, then and only then might it be worth our blood and treasure to help.


A Response by Abe Greenwald

John Agresto is vitally provocative in his discussion of American democracy promotion and undoubtedly right about a number of points. Most important, he his correct to argue that liberalism is a more desirable end than democracy in the Muslim Middle East.

James Q. Wilson wrote the very same thing in these pages in 2004: “Freedom—that is, liberalism—is more important than democracy because freedom produces human opportunity.” But only democracy, out of all political arrangements, protects such freedom, and it therefore deserves a more elevated standing in itself than John Agresto affords it. Wilson noted this, too: “In the long run…democracy is essential to freedom, because no political regime will long maintain the freedoms it has provided if it has an ironclad grip on power.”

The on-and-off relationship between democracy and liberalism can only be meaningfully considered with regard to the “long run.” While this is especially true of the Muslim and Arab worlds, it is only slightly less true of America’s own experiment in freedom. Tocqueville’s characterization of a liberal American people notwithstanding, there were many real-time predictions of inevitable national bedlam owing to the factious and hostile nature of the earliest Americans. More to the point, if you had asked 18th-century Americans what John Agresto calls “the right question”—Do you want your neighbors to be free?—most would certainly have failed to produce the right answer, at least as regarded their black, Indian, and female neighbors. While the Declaration of Independence took it as self-evident that all men are created equal, American life as it was lived was self-evidently another matter.

The eventual success of America’s liberal democracy therefore owes its realization in part to several factors beyond the nature of its people. The first is the agreed-upon mooting of the very question of liberalism at the outset. In 1787, it was decided that challenges to slavery would not even be considered for 20 years. To have been true to liberal values upon the Founding would have been to preside over its dissolution.

Another factor to which we may attribute the eventual flowering of liberalism is its seeding in our founding documents. The mechanisms for self-improvement in our Constitution have allowed us to fine-tune our democracy up to the present day. Doubtless, the Constitution and the Declaration were expressions of the liberal culture John Agresto describes. But that culture is best understood in the full context of its contradictions and qualifications. Our successful liberalism should not be seen as inexorable, but rather as fragile and improbable.

The third factor is the Civil War. Americans found themselves so bitterly divided that the question of freedom for all could finally be settled only through killing on a grand scale.

The last, invisible, factor running through the others is the passage of time. It was nearly 200 hundred years after the Founding that civil rights legislation forced a practiced liberalism upon American democracy.

How does this relate to Iraq and the Arab Spring? Imperfectly. But tellingly. Under the best circumstances, democracy is a political expression of a liberal people. But under less-than-ideal circumstances—the only ones that exist in the real world—democracy may be the only way to open up a country’s politics to the possibility of liberalism. This is, to some extent, true of our own history as well as that of many other democracies in the West and in the East. The French Revolution was a bloody convulsion of illiberal democracy, as Agresto notes, but it changed the nature of political debate, and liberalism came to France in time. The Muslim democracy we’re most apt to cite is Turkey—which was first democratic and very secondarily “liberal.”

All historical comparisons lose a good deal of their predictive value, however, with the advent of Islamism. Political Islam seeds a nation’s institutions not with liberalism but with intolerance and barbarism. The Muslim Brotherhood bears no resemblance to the Founders. And their constitution is not likely to mirror our own. Many champions of American democracy promotion could benefit from John Agresto’s clarity on this subject. There is no question but that we must deal with Islamist leaders. Yet we need not declare them democrats or liberals to do so. To speak of a moderate Taliban or a liberal Brotherhood is to downgrade our definitions of freedom and democracy—and to apprise genuine Muslim liberals of our lowered standards.

Yet it is those Muslim liberals, I fear, who are most ill served by the Agresto analysis. In 2010, a clear majority of Iraqis voted for a non-Islamist coalition in parliamentary elections. This remarkable achievement was dismissed by Iraq’s crooked leaders (who hijacked the political process and the government), but it would be a tragedy if it were to be dismissed by us. It was in this vote that the strongest hope for a liberal Iraq was made manifest. The ballot put paid to accusations of an incompatibility between Arab culture and American goals, and highlighted the courage and nobility of all the Americans who fought and died to midwife freedom in Mesopotamia.

But instead of working to secure the promise of that vote, an American administration turned its back as Iraqi leaders extinguished Iraqi aspirations. This failure should be placed squarely at the feet of American officials, not rank-and-file Iraqis. If democracy is but a door that provides a glimpse of a liberal future, the best hope for expanding the view is American involvement. Where the United States keeps its commitments to liberalism, transformative miracles occur. Where it doesn’t, they don’t. Where American action is inconsistent, so are results. Among the nations of the Arab Spring (where some elections have shown promising but insufficient support for non-Islamist parties), American influence is almost entirely absent. While this is not easily remedied, it is no cause to simply proclaim theocrats democrats and move on. It’s not who we are.

John Agresto writes that “neoconservatives especially…fail to see the true centrality of culture in shaping human life” and indicates that that failure was reflected in the more troubling developments in Iraq. But there is no indication that such a misunderstanding is or was prevalent among neoconservatives. As Wilson in fact wrote: “Culture and constitutions can produce freedom; democracy safeguards and expands it.” That many neoconservatives were too sanguine about the nature of Iraqi culture is a fair criticism, but that opinion was by no means unanimous, and the most starry-eyed versions of it were often expressed in the heat of arguments on chat shows and the like. Certainly, those neoconservatives who argued that there would be disastrous consequences for having too few members of the military on the ground after Saddam Hussein’s fall were motivated in part by concern that Iraqi culture encompassed forces that would fight liberalism and democracy to the death. Even so, events such as Iraq’s successful elections can only be interpreted as evidence of at least a capacity for liberalism; opinion on how best to expand that capacity was diverse and continuously in flux.

Dealing with the world as it is means being sober about the nature of the Muslim Middle East. But it also means understanding Americans. And there is no stronger evidence of the liberal American character John Agresto describes than our inability to remain disinterested observers to tyranny, human-rights abuse, and suffering. At the moment, the United States is consumed by domestic matters and haunted by a decade of war. But in time, indifference to the depredations of illiberal regimes will probably prove to be both a practical liability and a source of shame. We will actively (and imperfectly) promote democracy once again. Indeed if John Agresto’s claims about culture are correct in his remarkable essay, we have little choice but to act in agreement with ours.

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