It has no doubt vexed our Washington policymakers in the last decade to look on as peoples formerly under authoritarian rule have gained a measure of democratic control over their lives—and have elected people that Washington doesn’t approve of.
We’ve seen it in Latin America with the election and reelection of populist socialists like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, or the entrenchment of the left-Peronist Kirschners (husband and wife) in Argentina, or the effrontery of the Nicaraguans (in our very backyard!) to elect and reelect the Sandinista Daniel Ortega.
Similar things are happening elsewhere too: in Thailand and Turkey we have the phenomenon of the rural masses repeatedly winning elections against the parties of the urban, sophisticated middle and upper classes.
It’s those urban sophisiticates that we find in the streets demanding the ouster of duly elected governments. Something similar happened in Egypt with the electoral triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was erased within a year by a military coup with apparent US acquiescence. And in Ukraine, the current government is based in the traditionalist countryside and is defying the urban, middle class demonstrators.
As societies make the transition from authoritarian to democratic polities, it is natural that democratizing leadership would come from the more urban, educated sectors, for these are the people first exposed to such democratic ideals as freedom of speech and government by consent of the governed. But it is inherent in the logic of democratization that the unwashed masses of peasants also get the franchise. And when ambitious leaders succeed in mobilizing that population, in societies that are not yet fully urban and industrialized, the masses will prevail over the urban sophisticates. The temptation for the latter, then, is always to fall back on authoritarian methods of control, whether by open dictatorship or more subtle ways of limiting the scope of democracy.
South Africa since the end of apartheid exemplifies a variation on the pattern. What was a blatantly restricted democracy for whites only has become a democracy of majority rule, but constrained by the perceived need to keep the old white economic elite in the country and producing gradually expanding opportunities for an emerging black bourgeoisie.
We have yet to see a government that will stand squarely for improving the lot of the poor black majority, even at the cost of the economic elite. When that happens, we’ll probably see urban middle class blacks demonstrating in the streets against a popularly elected government, just as we saw in Egypt and are seeing now in Turkey.
If the United States succeeds (highly unlikely) in implanting democracy in Afghanistan, we’re likely to see a similar scenario unfold: the Taliban and other rural-based and illiberal forces are likely to win fair elections and then impose the kinds of limits on women’s rights and minorities of all kinds, that we have been fighting against.
Far more likely is – civil war leading to yet another dictatorship. But the only way the kind of urban sophisticates we like to talk to will win in Afghanistan is by striking alliances with the rural, tribal bosses, just as Karzai is doing now.
There is no way for the United States to succeed in Afghanistan. It was a great gift when Karzai refused to sign the agreement to allow American troops to remain there. We should take that gift and go home.
The unpopularity and political unsustainability of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the political impossibility of sending troops into Syria, are signs of yet another dilemma of democracy. War in the democratic age just ain’t what it used to be. Time was, national leaders could just move troops, planes and navies like chess pieces, and expect their people to fall in line. But Vietnam, and then Iraq and Afghanistan a generation later, have created an American public that is deeply averse to sustained military commitments abroad.
Bush could get away with it in 2001 and 2002 because of 9/11, but Obama can’t do it, knows he can’t, and doesn’t really want to. People just don’t believe these wars can be won, and they won’t tolerate leaders who persist in starting them.
So, where’s the dilemma, you ask. Well, this is what strong leaders are supposed to do, defend some notion of the “National Interest” by leading the country into war. They can’t do that now. How else, we may ask, can one be a strong, democratic leader? We hoped we’d find that out from Obama, but he’s not shown much yet. He’s not the Antichrist, just an anticlimax.