Messianic democracy
Bush's ultimatum to Saddam last night, followed by PBS's review of its own reports over the years on Iraq & the U.S., followed by Bill Moyer's interviews, first of Kinan Makiyah and then of Simon Schama and Walter Isaacson, was more TV than I normally watch in a month, and it was fascinating. It made me appreciate more keenly two things: the complicity of U.S. foreign policy in creating the monster Saddam (beginning back in 1963, when he was a would-be assassin), and the Messianic impulse of those in Washington who now want to eliminate him.

It was the latter that most surprised me; I'd underestimated it. Sure, there are lots of grubby, self-interested motives behind the rush to war, including control of oil fields and the promise of juicy "reconstruction" contracts for Cheney's Haliburton. But there is also a nobler, stupider principle at work: noble because it is disinterested, and stupid for that same reason -- it benefits nobody among those pursuing it, and it can't possibly work. This stupidly noble idea is imposing "democracy" on people who don't want it.

Makiya dismisses as "paternalist" the argument that the Iraqis (or any other people) aren't ready for democracy, because (he insists) all people yearn to be "free." This is ridiculous. That could be true only if we are willing to call "freedom" whatever men and women yearn for. We can say that those who answered Osama bin Laden's calls on September 11 or in Afghanistan died for a kind of freedom, and in their minds they probably did, but not a kind that has any connection to Paul Wolfowitz's vision of Arab democracy.

When they say "democracy," Americans always assume something like our own system (naturally!), with guarantees of private property and of personal liberties as well as a vote. Separation of church & state, respect for minority rights, and several other specifics are part of the mental package. But people cannot yearn for what they have never experienced nor even suspected of existing. What Makiyah and American democratic evangelists like Paul Wolfowitz assume is self-evident and innate is in fact learned behavior, learned in specific historical conditions not easy to reproduce. It takes time, patience, and each people's unique historical experience for them to reach a stability that works for them. If left to their own, I think the educated cadres among all peoples would tend toward something not exactly like, but more like, what we call democracy -- but with their own quirks growing out of each people's particular historical traditions. But the United States keeps bumbling forward blindly, forcing people with tanks, bombs and money to accept systems that make no sense to them, and thus creates more monsters.

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