In origin, the commitment to Arab democracy is no more than a cynical cross between war propaganda (stressing the undemocratic, therefore barbarous nature of the Arab enemy) and a giant diversionary tactic intended to distract attention from Israels crimes and US complicity in them. However, it also has the capacity to co-opt and silence what might otherwise have been a good part of liberal opposition to the war in the US.
For in the US, a belief in the universal applicability of democratic institutions, and Americas right and duty to promote or even impose them, is so widely and unquestioningly held that it is part of what Richard Hofstader and others have called the American Creed, the core beliefs which define the American nation. So deep and universal is this creed that it is extremely difficult for liberal Americans to stand up against an argument presented in these terms even when the argument is intended to justify a war of aggression and the flagrant violation of international law. The propaganda of democratisation therefore is a way of enlisting the sickly pieties of the Clinton era in the service of the ruthless geopolitical ambitions of Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle, and of allying genuine sentiments of liberal universalism with vicious ethno-religious hatreds.
The British especially need to be wary of the appeal of supposedly benign neo-imperialism, bringing progress, peace and democracy at the point of a gun. For obvious, deep historical reasons, such an appeal is especially strong in Britain, where a sense of bereavement for the loss of empire seems to have found two kinds of solace, which Tony Blairs approach brings together.
The second solace for the loss of empire is to retain a British capacity for expeditionary, neo-imperial warfare, and to cast this capacity as an agent of world peace and progress. This line has found one of its most eloquent spokesmen in Robert Cooper, formerly of the Cabinet Office; and it has completely taken possession of the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
What Blair represents
It would be quite unfair to see Blair as just a tinpot leader of a former great power Yeltsin without the alcohol deriving some kind of personal gratification from the condescending flattery of the Big Man in the White House; or as a mere politician who exploits the deep pride of the British public in the British armed forces, and in their successful use in a just cause which conveniently renews the enduring romance of far-flung military expeditions; or even as a leader determined at all costs to try to bridge the widening gulf between the US and Europe, and thereby to save Britain from having to confront a truly wrenching geopolitical choice.
British liberals and leftists often find it hard to take a strong stand against Blair. In part, to do him the credit he deserves, this is because some of the interventions in the 1990s were in fact highly moral and necessary. Moreover, it is now recognised that the Wests failure to intervene in other cases (Rwanda, Bosnia in 1992) was a disgrace. Also, they suffer from the legacy of past anti-imperialism, too often blaming all problems on the colonial powers and their local clients, investing hope in a range of progressive or revolutionary movements and regimes, many of which have proved to be a disaster. When I was growing up in the 1970s, it was impossible in respectable intellectual company to suggest that many societies around the world were unprepared for modern statehood without being automatically accused of racism or imperialism. The dreadful record of so many much-praised progressive regimes in the Third World, from Algeria to Zimbabwe, brought about a deserved backlash.
The imperial powers were not responsible for many of the deep underlying features of the colonial societies. Nevertheless, they have been responsible for a great deal of the post-colonial disasters. Even in Sierra Leone, the subject of one of the most morally justified of all Western military interventions in recent years, it would have been good if British press coverage especially of the barbarous state of that country had been accompanied by acknowledgment and analysis of the way in which the rotten socio-economic system and governing class left behind by the British contributed to the later catastrophes.
Democracy and the Middle East
Particularly in the Middle East therefore, democrats need to resist attempts to justify American imperial policies in the name of democracy and progress. It would make a cat laugh to see how US commentators, often in the same article or speech, call for Arab states simultaneously both to democratise and to suppress criticism of the US and Israel by their citizens. At one official conference that I attended in Washington, a leading member of the Israeli lobby began by declaring the need for the US to bring democracy to the Arab world if there is ever to be peace between the Arabs and Israelis. He then continued by stating that there is, however, no need for the US to pay the slightest heed to the views of the Arab peoples when it comes to Israeli policies, for the US is quite powerful enough to crush any Arab opposition, whether from states or peoples. Let them hate us, as long as they fear us, he concluded the motto of that famous liberal democratiser and benefactor of mankind, the Emperor Caligula. One of the first promoters of the idea that genuine democracy for the Palestinians and the Arabs in general is necessary if there is to be peace was Natan Sharansky a pathological Arab-hater whose party contains open advocates of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. The threadbare Wilsonian clothing of such people barely hides their wolfish visages.
Like the use of civilisation in Victorian times, the term is also endlessly flexible according to convenience. Even the most brutally authoritarian American allies (such as Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan) can always be described as being on the path to democracy; while given the realities of most states in the world, almost any state which opposes America can be berated for its democratic failings with at least the appearance of truth. Witness the contrasting attitude to Russia and Turkey in the 1990s and the fascinating way in which, now that Moscow is a semi-ally in the war against terrorism, the criticism of Russias lack of democracy is dying away in dominant American political circles. When it comes to democracy, human rights abuses and so on, the American establishments conscience flickers on and off like a strobe light in a seedy disco.
The rest of the world can see this. The main danger about the use of democracy remains that it is all too seductive as far as American liberals are concerned. A naive belief in the universal, immediate applicability of US-style democracy, and Americas right and duty to promote this, is an article of national ideological faith in the US. It easily shades over into a messianism, which is, in itself, nationalist and imperialist.
The result is that even highly intelligent, knowledgeable, widely-travelled (at least to international conferences) experts often produce work on democracy in the post-Communist and developing worlds that can only be described as baby-talk. When it comes to their supposedly democratic interlocuters in these countries, they show a kind of ardent willingness to be deceived more appropriate to a country maiden in an eighteenth century comedy.
The belief that all the peoples of the earth are naturally democratic and peace-loving when not misled by wicked elites can take some truly bizarre forms. I vividly remember a symposium on ethnic conflict at a US university in 2000. Among other historical revelations I learned that nationalism was invented by European aristocratic regimes in the nineteenth century as a way of justifying mass conscription for their aggressive wars; that Bismarck was an ethnic entrepreneur who created German nationalism in the 1850s; that Greeks and Turks lived in harmony in Cyprus for thousands of years until modern politicians divided them; that one man is responsible for all the conflicts in the Balkans; and that Arab popular hostility to Israel is the product of manipulation by Arab regimes, with no roots in real popular sentiment, genuine grievances, or of course Israeli actions.
More frightening still, these claims went unchallenged by the other participants a degree of intellectual conformism that an authoritarian regime would have to struggle to achieve. Like their missionary forbears, and their cold war predecessors, US liberal intellectuals in the grip of this ideology may be prepared to mow down untold thousands of Arabs and wreck their countries in the sincere belief that they are liberating them from the wicked rule of their elites.
The contempt for the reality of others is ideological and has been worsened by the radical downgrading of history, regional studies and social anthropology compared to approaches based on universal theories reflecting a bland, pseudo-scientific universalisation of American attitudes. The result is that many perhaps most of the essays, articles and lectures concerning democratisation published in America are written as if no serious social, historical, or cultural study had ever been written; just as most of the discussions of corruption and anti-corruption that I have attended have been conducted in ignorance of most works on political patronage or conspicuous consumption.
As I recall at the same symposium, only one of the experts present had ever actually lived outside the United States or Western Europe. From the point of view of comfort and safety, approaches based on general theory are therefore wonderfully convenient, since they require no serious or prolonged research in the more uncomfortable parts of the world.
Most missionaries were sincere and well meaning. Many did real good, especially when it came to suppressing the slave trade in Africa. To do this, they lived, and often died there. Unlike most of their contemporary equivalents, they ran appalling risks, and endured terrible hardship, and sometimes torture and death. Even so, they acted as ideological cover for imperial projects, which were by no means directed to the well being of the peoples concerned. In extreme cases most notably King Leopolds conquest of the Congo the language of Christianity and progress was used to cover the most appalling crimes.
Wilful amnesia and total war
Finally, and most dangerously, the missionary ideological approach also fits into a US tradition of total war. As Walter Russell Mead and others have pointed out, there exists in the US a strong belief that, if wars are to be fought, they should be fought with the aim of the absolute and unconditional defeat of the enemy. Bred by annihilatory victories over the Native Americans, and comprehensive ones over the Mexicans and Spanish, and Shermans destruction of the South in the Civil War, this attitude was both reflected and strengthened by the Second World War, when the Americans (alone, as most of them see it) utterly defeated Germany and Japan, occupied them, completely reshaped their political systems and culture, and reduced them to geopolitical subservience to the US.
Through history, many countries have created empires. Some worse, some better. As a whole, the British Empire was not too bad as empires go, and left some real benefits behind. Nor were the societies conquered in Africa, Asia and elsewhere some kind of earthly paradise before the West arrived to spoil things. But what must also never be forgotten is how many crimes were committed by empires, even when they were claiming to act in accordance with Christianity and civilisation; just how rotten, fraudulent and unstable were the democratic states which even the British Empire left behind in most of its colonies; and above all, why most of the rest of humanity has no desire ever again to accord Europe or the US the right to intervene in their affairs in the name of our supposed ideals and actual interests.
This applies with particular force to the historical record of the British, the French, the Americans and the other Western powers in the Middle East. Given the entire history of Western imperialism and of Western involvement in that region, the idea that we will bring peace, progress and democracy is a fantastically bad joke, which the Arabs are right to treat with contempt. On a personal note, as someone educated and trained in the British system, I find it deeply depressing that British subjects, who should know better because they should know their history, are now among those telling America how to do it.