More of the same
With ample justification, Americans love their democracy and it is only natural if they believe it is the answer to the political instability all over the world today. It works for us, why shouldn’t it work for them?
But history – as well as common sense – tells us that for all its virtues, democracy by itself may not always be the best path to pacification of the populations in countries burdened with long (or even recent) histories of religious, cultural and ethnic rivalries.
Today, there are multiple examples that all too painfully make that point: Iraq and Afghanistan immediately come to mind, but the same lessons are there to be learned in Syria, Egypt, Libya and Myanmar, among others.
And western political leaders, in their admirable advocacy of democracy, may be overlooking the lessons learned from the aftermath of World War II and, as an instructive contrast, the fighting that followed the dismantling of Yugoslavia.
Yesterday’s statesmen recognized that Germany, for example, would not be ready for democracy until the divisive issues that had led it into World War II had been satisfactorily resolved.
The German people needed to rid themselves of the demons that were turned loose by Naziism and to pay a price for their evil deeds.
That’s why there were the Nuremberg trials. They served as a national cleansing and ultimately made it possible for democracy to flourish.
The opposite has happened in the volatile Balkans, where Europe worries that another war is just over the horizon. They are well aware that World War I began 100 years ago next month with an assassination in that deeply divided region.
After World War II, the Balkans were peaceful only because they were under the thumb of a Communist dictator, Marshal Tito. It wasn’t long after his death that the various parts of what was then called Yugoslavia began fighting each other over their differences and, despite the peace accord brokered by the United States, they’re still at it and at least partly, and perhaps largely, that’s because there was no Balkan equivalent of Nuremberg.
Of greater immediate concern to Washington and other western capitals is the future of Afghanistan, where democracy is in its infancy and where its chances of survival seem slim.
It is one thing for the United States and its allies to steer the Afghan people to the polls, but that exercise in democracy won’t cure that nation’s ills unless it is accompanied by a plan to resolve the deep and bitter rivalries, not only among those who are taking part in the democratic process, but even more importantly among those who seek to undermine it.
And consider the immediate example of Libya. The western democracies were ecstatic when Moammar Gadhafi was ousted as that nation’s dictator (mostly because he brazenly supported anti-western terrorism) but now the situation there is so dangerous that this past weekend the United States recalled its entire diplomatic delegation.
Similarly, by steering Iraq to democracy without making sure it had a sound foundation, the west has simply invited further instability that is fueled by religious and ethnic hatreds that existed long before the execution of Saddam Hussein and the introduction of the ballot box,
“No one (in Iraq) feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation,” Gen. David Petraeus observed as long ago as 2008.
Without this reconciliation, Iraq’s politics have been overwhelmed by the concept of revenge rather than the cooperation and tolerance that are so essential to a successful democracy.
We’d better be prepared for more of the same in Afghanistan.