Sat Mar 29, 2003

Clean Hands, Dirty Hands

David Adesnik of OxBlog has responded to my criticism of OxDem and my view of the likely post-war experience in Iraq. Thanks to David for taking the time. Here is some reaction from me.

David’s post makes a couple of things clearer to me but still, I think, leaves a lot open for argument. He says

According to the first sentence in our statement of principles, “The Forum’s mission is to promote democracy worldwide. It will do so through public education and activism.” We are not interested in describing. We are interested in persuading.

OxDem’s fourth principle is that “Democracy is a human right. In the absence of democracy, no human rights are secure.” So OxDem sees itself as dedicated to promoting a universally applicable set of rights to all people without fear or favor. David complains that “our critics tend to assume—or simply want to believe—that we are reflexive supporters of a belligerent approach to international relations” and that OxDem is “nothing more than a GOP front” (I never suggested anything of the kind, by the way).

David speculates that critics are made insecure because “OxDem … is more committed to liberal principles than its liberal critics are.” He likes this idea, and develops it in the second half of his post. He claims my criticisms arise out of bad faith: “If one is serious about one’s liberal principles,” he says, then the new Iraqi government “must be a democratic one.” But, he asserts,

Instead of recognzining this obligation, Kieran and others seem to be more interested in washing their hands of responsibility for the fate of Iraq (and Afghanistan). … In contrast, OxDem rejects the ethics of Pontius Pilate.

Here, I am tempted to suggest that OxDem may be closer to Pontius Pilate than me. For all his failings, Pilate was at least attempting to bring a European tradition of republicanism in politics, pluralistic tolerance of religion in civic life, and heavy investment in public infrastructure to a priest-ridden, monotheistic, backward Middle-Eastern region. This strikes me as very OxDemish. History might remember Pilate better had he not had the massive bad luck to run up against a blowback problem the size of the Son of God during his governorship.

But I worry that this line of argument will get me into trouble with all kinds of people. So let me address this “ethics of Pilate” accusation in a different way. Of course a liberal democracy in Iraq is a better outcome than the alternatives. Now that they’ve gone and invaded, the Administration should try to build one. Unlike David, however, I am interested in description as well as persuasion. I want to know the answers to questions like these:

  1. Is the Bush administration really making a good faith effort to build democracy? Or do they have some other agenda? Or are they just making it up as they go along?
  2. Even if there’s a good faith effort, what sort of costs are we prepared to pay to achieve this goal? Is this a six-month or a twenty-year commitment? Does that change our assessment?
  3. What do the targets of our benevolence think about all this intervention? Do we think we can easily tell the goodies from the baddies after Saddam falls?

These are mundane empirical issues. If OxDem want to be a kind of Amnesty International for Democracy—i.e., insistent only on their principles, even-handedly and to all—then they don’t have to answer these questions. To be consistent, they need only complain if the Bush Administration pursues anti-democratic policies, or yell at the nascent Iraqi democrats when they start fighting amongst themselves, or express regret that the Debaathification purge has gotten messy.

My view is that, just as Marxism had to face up to “actually existing Socialism,” we have to look at “actually existing democracy.” David accuses me of washing my hands like Pilate. But it’s OxDem that is putting itself above the fray, promoting the high principles of liberal democracy that everyone can agree on “regardless of whether one is a Democrat or a Republican, a Tory or a Labourite.” I think there are empirical outcomes which, though vastly less desirable than OxDem’s vision, seem much more likely on the ground. I want to face up to these possibilities, not wash my hands of them.

I hope that OxDem turns into an effective lobby for democratic principles. I hope they develop the moral authority of Amnesty and similar groups. I hope they get the ear of the Bush Administration. I hope it provides all the resources required to rebuild Iraq as a liberal democracy, and not some kind of colonial protectorate or friendly puppet state. I hope the people of the country go along with the idea and it all happens smoothly and quickly. But I also want to know what’s likely to happen in Iraq once Saddam is dead, the Baath party is on the back-foot, the post-war scramble for power and patronage is underway, the cities are ruined and there are two hundred thousand foreign soldiers trying to keep order in a country whose culture and politics they know nothing about.

The closest OxDem gets to this is when David says “OxDem supports democracy promotion in spite of the hardships involved. We are willing to face such hardships precisely because a principled commitment to democracy commitment entails an obligation to face hardship.” OxDem, of course, won’t be facing any hardship. They mean they are willing to have other people face it. Now, it’s good that he acknowledges the potential costs. But the abstract idea of hardship could mean anything from a few months of confusion while things are being reorganized to, say, twenty years of foreign military occupation with all that implies. The difference between the two makes—and ought to make—a big difference to people’s support for OxDem’s project.