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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

09 June 2005

Laissez-faire freedom

The experience of the past two years suggests that America could do more for freedom by standing on the sidelines rather than center stage—by encouraging rather than implanting democracy.

This belief comes from four observations: first, bloodless revolutions are proliferating; second, forced democracy breeds opposition; third, overtly helping foreign opposition groups often backfires; and forth, America’s allies are the usual suspects in crushing freedom.

The transfers of power in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan add to a long history of peaceful swifts to democracy. In the 1970s, Greece, Spain, and Portugal became democratic relatively bloodlessly, as did Eastern Europe in the late 1980s (not to forget the Soviet Union, whose fall could have triggered a major conflict). Even a strongman such as Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia was forced to resign in the face of mass opposition.

To be sure, these events are not purely domestic—Syria withdrew from Lebanon under foreign pressure, America and Europe supported Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko in his “orange revolution,” and Milosevic resigned eighteenth months after NATO had bombed his country. Nor is freedom on the march everywhere—witness the recent crackdown in Uzbekistan’s Andijon province or Robert Mugabe’s persistent cling to power in Zimbabwe.

All the same, these revolutions underscore that the passion for democracy is well rooted in the human psyche and that the images of freedom can travel from place to place and inflame that spark of liberty that every person carries within. When that flame takes hold and multiplies, no leader, however ruthless, can sleep quietly at night.

What is more, the conditions that make revolutions possible are spreading too. Peaceful transitions require a critical mass—a requisite basis of social support. In this, the internet plays a vital role; activists acquire expertise online whilst also broadcasting an unfiltered message internationally and instantly. Foreign technical support helps too with independent election monitors being able to identify electoral fraud more easily.

In a way, countries live under a microscope, with foreigners being less inclined to gloss over state violence; rather they want accountability and a Western reaction that is proportional to the evil committed. This is evident in Uzbekistan where President Karimov suppressed a rebellion in Andijon province, killing about 745 people (official toll: 169); Westerners are pressing for an independent investigation into the killings, while many others are reexamining anew the merits of a military alliance with Uzbekistan.

While the peace seeds are spreading, the attempt to democratize Iraq and Afghanistan has been paid for in billions of dollars and thousands of lives, foreign, Iraqi, and Afghani. The initial enthusiasm has waned and the locals’ patience is running out, showing how difficult it is to reconstruct a country. What is more, the manpower required to stabilize Iraq has compromised the pacification of Afghanistan, and America’s commitment has constrained its ability to deal with threats elsewhere. This shows the limits of converting states by taking them over.

The midpoint between watching a revolution on CNN and leading an invasion force to bring it about it to aid domestic opposition groups. This is the American policy in Iran: to favor moderates and hope that they will gain power. But Tehran neutralizes the American support by painting its opposition as America’s stooges. The Lebanese opposition groups faced the same predicament, though a low-profile American reaction helped them evade similar accusations. Only in Ukraine, which featured a widespread rebellion, claims of foreign involvement were insufficient to discredit Yushchenko.

Part of this has to do with the success of domestic propaganda. But the American appetite for freedom has grown and the policies to promote it appear unpredictable to much of the world, especially in the Middle East. In other words, what America will do is beyond forecasting, which means that allying with America appears like a dangerous pact—help at an unknown cost.

There can be no doubt that liberation is noble and inspiring; many in Iraq and Afghanistan are grateful for what America did. But there is also no doubt that America’s activism has generated envy among people who wish that America would stop supporting their oppressors.

The message reverberating from Iraq is that Arabs can be democratic; but it is also that America’s geopolitical interests no longer dictate an unconditional preference for stability over democracy. If this message reaches the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and Russia, America would have done plenty to advance freedom.

This approach contradicts America’s growing impatience with containment and deterrence. The sense of urgency comes from the fear that terrorists will strike with weapons of mass destruction. In that sense, gradualism is a luxury that America cannot afford.

But this is hardly right. When Sudan was pressured, it expelled Osama bin Laden (or, depending on the story, offered to turn him over to America). Afghanistan was too neglected to claim that America tried deterrence there and failed. And Iraq’s lack of weapons of mass destruction proves that containment can work. After all, America’s presence in Iraq has bred as many terrorists as any failed state could have.

In the end, America should realize that it can do lots with a light touch, and that the patient management of international affairs can be more fruitful than the radical kind, especially since both require a long time before they bring results, and hence neither should be regarded as a quick fix.

Put otherwise, America should think of democracy as a plant; the shadow of realpolitik has often left it to die where it could have flourished; elsewhere, it has grown against all odds. But overall, the freedom plant needs to be watered, not flooded, in order to grow.

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