Democracy Freestyle!

Over the last weeks, an interesting back-and-forth kind of dialogue has developed over the situation in Syria. It's gone roughly like this:

Good News: Democracy may, in fact, be on the march in Syria. Bush's strategy worked!

Bad News: Pro-Syrian, explicitly anti-American counterprotests dwarfed those staged by the opposition. Bush's imperalist-tinged adventurism in the Middle East has complicated a reform that could otherwise have gone relatively smoothly. It didn't work!

Good News: At least the anti-American protesters protested, and didn't resort to violence. Spreading democracy has worked, after all.

These are often presented point-counterpoint style, but I'm not sure why any of them are mutually exclusive. They seem to me to be the obvious consequences of Bush's confused policies. He deserves applause for adopting a "forward strategy" on democracy in the region, although it's unclear whether he decided to adopt one until it became obvious that WMD would not be found. But reading Fred Kaplan's explication of the dissimilarity between Berlin 1989 and Syria 2005, the thing that leaps off the page is how seriously reform-minded Lebanese lack a Western role model:

[Bush] sees [democracy] as not merely a political right but a God-given trait, humanity's default mode, which gushes forth like a geyser once a tyrant is blown from his throne. History shows us there's hot lava in this geyser, a volcano of energy, which can be creative, destructive, or both. Which way it flows is a matter of gravity, chance, the contours of landscape, or human engineering.

That's it in a nutshell: We haven't shaped the landscape. During the Cold War, we used to talk about promoting Western-style democracy; the sheer power of our example made tyrannical regimes weak enough internally to crumble on their own. Obviously, that paradigm isn't totally applicable to the Middle East. But the ultimate effect of Bush's policy has been to completely reverse America's strategic role in promoting freedom. While we now credibly boast the military might to loose almost any people from the shackles of tyranny, our example no longer shows the direction to run once free. Our cumulative effect on the region has been one of destabilization, not democratization. Considering the muderous butchers that reign in much of the Mideast, a little destabilization might not seem like a bad thing. But it also doesn't seem like arecipe for lasting change in the region. What good is deposing a group of thieves, if your values cannot fill the vacuum their deposition will surely create?

This is why the developments in Syria don't strike me as contradictory. Our intervention there helped expose a tyrannical government for what it was. But as John Kerry learned during the campaign, it is not enough to provide a compelling critique of your opponent. To produce the kind of sweeping attitudinal change that the Mideast cries out for, you also have to provide a compelling positive vision of the future. Today, no one abroad speaks of Western-style democracy. They speak of democracy, but the thought that follows it is: "...and whatever we do next." They speak of democracy, freestyle.

When the prospect of Iraqi elections was raised back in early 2004, observers wondered - and have continued wondering - what would happen if Iraqi citizens democratically elected a theocratic government that was totally antithetical to democratic norms. They wondered if Iraq would produce a government based on free speech, civil rights and liberties, active political parties with repeated non-trivial elections - things that are vital to sustaining a budding democracy. The Bush administration, happy to conflate positive action with a positive example, never answered the question. In Syria, the question is answering itself.

- Daniel A. Munz