The Buzz

A Neocon Looks Back

In this month’s issue of Commentary, John Agresto, a self-described neoconservative who served as an adviser to the Iraqi government just after the 2003 invasion, thoughtfully questions the idea that the United States should actively and forcefully spread democracy. He identifies the assumptions that lie beneath the idea:

We seemed convinced of two things: First, that democracy is the form of government under which all men are meant to live, and that democracy, unlike autocracy of any kind, is just in itself. Being just, it includes the very essence of ideas of freedom, equality, protection of rights, and toleration. Democracy is natural, democracy is how men achieve just political life and, most surely, democracy means freedom. Second, we constantly gave the impression that democratic government, being natural, is easy. Throw off the tyrant, overturn the ruling class, write a constitution, hold elections, and voila—Democracy.

Phrased this way, the tension at the heart of the word “neoconservative” is quite clear—neoconservative foreign policy is rooted in radical, not conservative, conceptions of social order, social change and human nature. Institutions emerge ex nihilo. Old traditions and old elites are destroyed without consequences. Societies achieve stability without much effort. These are the thoughts of a Robespierre or a Marx, not of a Burke. Agresto seems to realize this, charging that he and his comrades

betrayed an understanding that was alien to our own country’s democratic beginnings as well as removed from any reading of history, ancient or modern. To be seduced by the rising tide of democracy worldwide, one had to block from view the democratic election in Gaza, where a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of its sovereign neighbor won the day. . . . One might want to look at the democratic mobs in Libya executing all the blacks they capture, both men and women; or the mobs in Egypt burning Coptic churches.

The real question for democratization, says Agresto, is not “Don’t all men want to be free?” After all, “some people, perhaps most people, prefer other goods” over freedom, like order, safety or religious purity. “The right question,” he states, is “Do you want your neighbors to be free?” When the citizens cannot answer this with something close to “yes,” democracy cannot flourish.

The essay is worth reading in its entirety—it also includes a thoughtful discussion of the influence of culture and religion on democratic values. Abe Greenwald’s response to all this merits examination on its own. Greenwald takes Agresto to task for an inadequate examination of the possibility of cultural changes that can foster democracy—as he points out,

If you had asked 18th-century Americans . . . "Do you want your neighbors to be free?"—most would certainly have failed to produce the right answer, at least as regarded their black, Indian, and female neighbors. . . . To have been true to liberal values upon the Founding would have been to preside over its dissolution.

This is certainly accurate, but it also presentist—it uses modern attitudes to judge the past. It is right to condemn the gross illiberalism of a society that denied the vote to women and freedom to slaves. But we cannot fully understand the past unless we examine it by its own values. That lets us see the tension in a state that declared its independence with a claim that all men are created equal, yet which treated some men unequally. This tension was immediately seized upon by various critics, and they would eventually widen our definition of "neighbors" to include many more Americans. The Nineteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act didn't create freedom in America—they expanded it. 

Greenwald attributes the failure of the democracy drive in places like Iraq—whose elections “can only be interpreted as evidence of at least a capacity for liberalism”—to American irresolution, arguing that “where the United States keeps its commitments to liberalism, transformative miracles occur.” This language of the supernatural is appropriate for discussing Iraqi democratization, for only a true believer could look at such a deeply divided society and expect democracy to emerge. The 2010 election Greenwald trumpets came after years of sectarian bloodletting and the departure of fully half of Iraq’s Christians and four in five Mandaeans; many experts see an Iraq primed for another round of violence. Could ancient animosities and prejudices really have been buried by American commitment? If so, Israel and the Arab states should be at peace, for our government has been against their conflict long before it was against a divided Iraq.

Agresto is quite right. America can help countries become democracies, but only when the social, economic and ideological forces driving democratization are strong and internal. Our might can break militaries and hang dictators; it cannot create toleration or forge common bonds.