DEFENDING BUSH FROM...

DEFENDING BUSH FROM JONAH'S SMEARS. I think Jonah Goldberg's notion that the Bush administration has erred by emphasizing democracy over other liberal values -- the rule of law, pluralism, etc. -- is appealing, but basically mistaken. I also thing he's missing the point that this has actually become a fairly standard attack on Bush from important left-of-center circles. My argument on this score, which I've made before, is basically stolen from Thomas Carothers, the Carnegie Endowment's rule-of-law guy, who's neither a Bush fan nor (as you can tell from his job description) one inclined to overlook the importance of the rule of law.

The basic problem here is that contrary to the impression one gets from, say, Fareed Zakaria's book, liberal autocracy, while certainly a conceptual possibility, doesn't seem to be much of an empirical possibility. If you're compiling a list of modern liberal autocracies, you're going to start with Singapore and you're going to end with . . . Singapore. Singapore's nice and I wouldn't be too eager to press for change there, but it's also an unusual situation and it's far from clear that there's a generalizable model here. If you want to find examples of liberal autocracy as a stable governing model, you really need to look back to nineteenth-century Europe (or to some extent eighteenth-century Britain). Even there, you'll find that the main theme was less autocracy per se than some combination of a restricted franchise and/or power sharing between elected parliaments and hereditary monarchs. The nineteenth-century United States in some ways fits this model as well, though nobody talks about it that way.

Taking the long view, that trajectory of political development was fairly beneficent. It's clear, though, that it's simply not something that can be replicated in the modern world. Which leaves us with the problem that, as Carothers put it, nobody really has any good ideas as to how to promote the rule of law abroad. The most successful thing we've had has been the European Union expansion process, but that has a very limited applicability. By contrast, for all the flaws of the democracy-first approach, both the U.S. government and our international partners have gotten pretty good at organizing reasonably free and fair elections. So we do what we can do.

The difficulty is that it remains the case that liberalism is more important. The main lesson to be learned, I think, is that we need to temper our ambitions and our aspirations. Naturally, we hope for liberalism and the rule of law to spread. And to some extent, it is spreading. But we know very little about how to do this, and it mostly seems to be a process that outsiders have a very limited capability to impact. We shouldn't confuse our ability to help organize democratic elections, or the widespread appeal that such elections have around the world, with an ability to achieve what really matters in terms of political values.

--Matthew Yglesias

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