View the h-diplo Discussion Logs by month
View the Prior Message in h-diplo's September 2001 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
View the Next Message in h-diplo's September 2001 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
Visit the h-diplo home page.
Professor Barth wrote: [snip the first half of Barth's posting] "If, like Levine, one wants to deal with the causes of this phenomena, one should start by understanding that people are not always motivated by prosperity. (The Palestinians have no problem suffering a drastic decrease in their standard of living in order to sustain a liberation struggle). One should also take notice that a lot of Muslims (including a lot of non-terrorists) have a different definition of liberty. By the way, even according to the American/Western definition, the United States does not stand for democracy in the Middle East, since it is consistently bolstering non-representative regimes. The slogan "Death to America" originated in Teheran, due to American support of the repressive regime of the Shah. No lessons were learned. The United States continuously supports similar regime all over the region. That is the main problem, not prosperity." I find this line of argumentation somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, Barth adopts a culturally relativistic point of view and chastises the United States for refusing to recognize that many people in the Middle East "have a different definition of liberty." On the other hand, he simultaneously chastises the United States for backing existing regimes that are "repressive" (by what standard? Middle Eastern or Western?) and "non-representative" (ditto?), that is, for a lack of what we call liberty. This position is quite common in the literature on the United States in the Third World. Given this "damned if you do, damned if you don't" policy dichotomy, what would Barth have the United States do in the region to countries like Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait? Press for some sort of "representative" government? Try to turn them into Jeffersonian democrats? Try to arrange compromises with a totalitarian mode of thought like Islamic fundamentalism? Accept them the way they are? Let them be overrun by the likes of the even more "unrepresentative" and "repressive" (by my standards) Saddam? Threaten to not buy their oil? Criticism is easy, but policy-making is very difficult. What would Professor Barth suggest for a policy toward, let's say, the Saudi regime, the support for which is at the top of Bin Laden's list of American crimes and the government of which Barth finds "in no way represents the will of the people?" (But then again Bin Laden is still angry about the Crusades. How could one possibly assuage such a person and those who support his aims? By dropping jars of olives and iodine as Levine proposes? Or more "representativeness" as Barth suggests? I am really doubtful.) Now, the "will of the people" is a slippery concept if there ever was one, and I am not sure how Barth has discerned what the Saudi people think with such clarity and certainty. But for the sake of argument let's assume that he is right. By whose standard do we judge "representativeness" to be a worthy and attainable goal to seek? Assuming that we do, how does Barth suggest we go about it? In policy terms, how would Professor Barth square this policy circle, without risking the collapse of the entire government structure and its replacement by something even worse, for the local people and the United States (such as happened, in my view, when the Shah was replaced by Khomeini and Islamic terrorism against the United States and the West took a quantum leap?) What would the reaction be from the Saudi ruling families, or even the populace, to such pressure? Would it not hand the nationalism issue over to the militants by proving them right, thereby *strengthening* Bin Laden's supporters? With characteristic wisdom, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote (I am paraphrasing from memory here): "The most dangerous moment for a bad government arrives when it tries to reform itself." With such unknowns, what government would or should run the risks? By any measurement, our opportunities for fostering these kinds of changes, even if desirable and necessary from our point of view, are modest. (As an aside, as a liberal triumphalist I find the goals that Barth speaks of highly desirable; I am questioning their feasibility in that region at this time. It would seem to me that if they are basically unfeasible, and this is widely understood, it is unhelpful for increasing understanding of those limitations to criticize the United States for not "standing for" democracy in the region, something that would likely end its influence in the region altogether.) I would also make distinctions between normal business among states and "support," which are many times blurred in the American debates over how to deal with the rest of the world. This is true for both left and right. Thus, conservatives in the United States argue that establishing normal relations with Castro would "support" his regime, while relations with rightist regimes will liberalize them over time; liberals say that "support" for rightist regimes extends their shelf life (and the United States must therefore take responsibility for their actions), while relations with leftist regimes (for example, China or Cuba) will liberalize them over time. This assumed march toward political liberalization remains largely an untested hypothesis, although "Third Wave" democracy is proving to be fairly resilient thus far in the face of global economic slowdown, but it is a fundamental part of the American liberal ideology. This is why backing dictators, of the left or right, is seemingly so much more painful for Americans than other peoples. It can take different policy forms, but it is liberal universalism just the same. We tend to either cut off support, and sometimes relations altogether, or try to transform them into emerging liberals. My favorite example of this cognitive dissonance in action was an article written by an American academic in the 1950s about South Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem entitled "South Vietnam's One-man Democracy." But we did it somewhat with "Uncle Joe" Stalin during World War II also, as did a lot of people. In short, I am not sure this is a case of lessons unlearned in the region -- always the claim of the academics -- as it is just a lot of bad policy options available according to our value system. Doug Macdonald Colgate University