Not a conundrum, just a mess

Democracy
Arsenal
is a relatively new blog which describes itself as
"devoted to opinion, commentary and sparring on U.S. foreign
policy and global affairs".  The commentary I have read so far, from at least two
of its five contributors, has the flavor of policy wonkdom (as
opposed to academic wonkdom or practical party politics).
Suzanne Nossel has a post
today that I think illustrates a current but imaginary left-wing dilemma, and
how not to address it.

She starts by citing Marty Peretz’s identification of, in her words, “a big conundrum facing us foreign
policy progressives: namely, how to come to grips with Bush’s
successes in promoting democracy in the Middle East”.  She
disagrees with Peretz that progressives are just churlish, however,
because the BushRovers’ methods—“the arrogance, the deception,
the lack of accountability, the cronyism, the dismissiveness of
critics and questioners, the failure to uphold democratic values
while purporting to promote democracy, the refusal to admit mistakes
— are flat out wrong”.

In her view, the difficulty for
progressives lies in finding a “boldness, …[a] willingness to
commit U.S. power and energy in furtherance of important causes, and
…[a] sense of possibility about even theEvilshrub2 most intractable region of
the world” that matches Bush’s.  We progressives need to figure
out how to recognize “the positive and important results of Bush’s
daring in the Middle East” while we “continue hammering at what’s
wrong with Bush’s approach” (that is, the arrogance, deception,
lack of accountability, cronyism, etc., etc.)

So, for a minute, let’s check in on the
successful promotion of democracy in a couple of these places, on “the furtherance of
that important cause”, on “the positive and important results" there (all in Nossel’s formulations).

For example, how about a summary
of the recent PBS Frontline piece on reporting in Iraq (aired in January).  Aside from the fact that the
source is a well-known running dog of the fervid liberal left, like
all things PBS, it seems to me that the ability of reporters to work
in Iraq is some measure of how well the civil process itself might be
working (not to mention a test of how difficult it might be for
reporters to cover and get the story, thus how well we actually know what’s going on). 

That night, Burns files a story in
which he draws comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. "Vietnam,"
he wrote, "is rarely mentioned among the troops. It is
considered a bad talisman among those men and women, who privately
admit to fears that this war could be lost."

Another New York Times reporter, Dexter Filkins, has just
returned from two weeks of covering the battle for Fallujah. […]

Exhausted, Filkins is departing Baghdad for a break — but he
still has to make it to the airport, along a road where there have
been 15 suicide bombings in the past month. Filkins is distracted and
nervous as his security guard notices a suspicious car on the road,
but they make it through safely.

"Just the other day, my colleague went to the airport, and I
think he had to drive through one car bombing and then through a gun
battle," Filkins says. "It’s just such a measure of how
troubled this enterprise is. Nineteen months into this thing and we
can’t really drive to the airport with any kind of assurance. And
it’s only a couple miles down the road."

Afghanistan_ethnoling_97_small_2

Over the way in Afghanistan, things are
also a bit dicey for civil life, let alone democracy.  An AP story
from late February this year, by Stephen Graham, leads

Three years after the fall of the
Taliban, Afghanistan remains the world’s sixth-least developed
country, the United Nations said Monday, warning that a nation that
became a haven for international terrorists could fail again unless
more is done to improve the lives of its long-suffering citizens. In
a wide-ranging report that measures Afghans’ personal security,
welfare and ability to control their own lives, the world body ranked
the country 173rd out of 178 assessed in 2004. The five states that
fared worse are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Even though

Afghanistan’s economy is booming,
growing at least 25 percent annually since then and expected to
expand by at least 10 percent a year in the next decade. Some 4
million children have enrolled in school — more than ever before —
and more than 3 million people forced from their homes have returned,
most from Pakistan and Iran.

it should be understood that one of the
most important bases for this boom is not likely to enhance
democratic civility:

Last week the United Nations announced that the
number of farmers growing poppies in Afghanistan has now reached near
record levels.

According to the recent Afghanistan Opium Survey
produced by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC),
land being used for poppy cultivation reached 131,000 hectares in
2004, up 64 per cent from last year, and a dramatic increase from the
8,000 hectares cultivated in 2001. Due to drought and disease,
harvesting increased by only an estimated 17 per cent from the 2003
crop that totalled 4,200 tonnes. The report states that poppies are
now being planted in all of the country’s 32 provinces, and Afghan
poppies now provide some 87 per cent of the world’s total opium
supply. (Peter Willems’ story from December, 2004, in Al Ahram Weekly).

So what’s the conundrum?  The fact is,
progressives can stop worrying about it—really, I wish I had to
worry.  Because this is One—Big—Balagan.  Reporters can’t get to
the airport in Baghdad without severe risk of life and limb.
Afghanistan, sans Taliban (at least in Kabul) now produces the basis
for almost all the world’s heroin supply, with the attendant
elevation of the fortunes of warlords there and abroad.  Where in this fantastic mess could that democratic progress be
lurking?

So, here on the progressive left, let’s
not worry about the need to give Bush “props for ungluing Arab
totalitarianism”.  Nossel is correct of progressives that “most
of us did not think this could be done, and we certainly had no plan
for how to do it in the short-term”.  Problem is, neither did the
Bush. 

And we should not be buying into the BushRovers’
pervasive spin that they did, and that somehow there is a general
upsurge of “democracy” and “freedom” in the Middle East.
What we should be doing is asking why this “upsurge of democracy”
crap is being peddled so assiduously by our national media, despite
the obvious facts on the ground, including the patent inability of
their reporters to work in these places.

I can add that this confusion on
Nossel’s part seems like a temporary aberration,
perhaps evidence (more evidence) of blogging’s potential for sloppy
thinking.  She refers to an article she published a year ago in
Foreign Affairs, at the beginning of which she points out that

[a]fter September 11, conservatives adopted the trappings of
liberal internationalism, entangling the rhetoric of human rights and
democracy in a strategy of aggressive unilateralism. But the militant
imperiousness of the Bush administration is fundamentally
inconsistent with the ideals they claim to invoke. To reinvent
liberal internationalism for the twenty-first century, progressives
must wrest it back from Republican policymakers who have misapplied
it.

Progressives must therefore advance a foreign policy that renders
more effective the fight against terrorism but that also goes well
beyond it — focusing on the smart use of power to promote U.S.
interests through a stable grid of allies, institutions, and norms.
They must define an agenda that marshals all available sources of
power and then apply it in bold yet practical ways to counter threats
and capture opportunities. Such an approach would reassure an uneasy
American public, unite a fractious government bureaucracy, and rally
the world behind U.S. goals.

Suzanne, blog not when thou art weary, neither neglecteth thy earlier, more coherent texts on the topic.  The two paragraphs above capture exactly what we need.

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