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October 10, 2009

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Nato

"...the ideals of democracy and freedom ... are now indelibly associated with the Bush administration"

In whose mind? If people around the world don't 'get' that Bush was a principled crusader for democracy, then would they understand Obama as distancing himself from those ideals? They may be wrong, but it seems likely that many people see Obama as distancing himself from human rights violations, unilateralist sabre-rattling, and "incompetent and unprincipled interventionism." I mean, it's unfortunate that so much of the world has everything exactly wrong, but no matter how wrong-headed, the world's opinion defines world opinion. Even in Eastern Europe, the improvement in popular opinions of America is merely smaller than elsewhere.

The question is, of course, if Obama can turn any of that into changes around the world in America's interest, including in terms of encouraging democracy. I think the Nobel committee decided they wanted to motivate and encourage Obama now rather than waiting to see if he already had what it takes. I tend to think this was a mistake, but I suppose I understand their reasoning.

I do think it has gotten increasingly complicated for repressive regimes around the world to distract their populace with the supposed malevolence of the American Imperialists, and sufficient internal pressure for change is usually sufficient to cause change. One thing I will say for Bush's intervention in Iraq - it was definitely one of the few states in which no amount of internal pressure was likely to seriously threaten the regime. Military intervention was its only path to regime change in the short or medium term.

Anton Underby

re: "If people around the world don't 'get' that Bush was a principled crusader for democracy, then would they understand Obama as distancing himself from those ideals?"

I don't see the evidence that people around the world don't get that Bush was a principled crusader for democracy. There is evidence that Obama is more *popular* than Bush globally. Now, one problem with that is that world public opinion is not really what I'm talking about. Most of the world's population but doesn't have an opinion about whether Bush was a principled crusader for democracy or not, and indeed couldn't understand the question. If we narrow the definition of "the world" to educated opinion in North America and (especially) Western Europe, a large share of that segment would, I'm afraid, have rather amorphous and paranoid attitudes towards the Bush administration which would collapse under scrutiny, but to the extent that one could distill a general view, it might be that Bush *was* a principled crusader for democracy, and that makes them distinctly uncomfortable. Western Europeans in particular seem to have been put off by Bush's use of the word "evil," a taboo for moral relativists.

The mass of educated opinion enjoys the luxury of being able to hold incoherent views; but the Obama administration is not entirely able to avoid making substantive decisions; and to that extent, however vapid and incoherent their rhetoric may be, they cannot help expressing a philosophy through their actions. To the extent that they have done so they are certainly distancing themselves from the Bush administration's record and from the ideals of democracy in particular.

re: "it seems likely that many people see Obama as distancing himself from human rights violations, unilateralist sabre-rattling, and 'incompetent and unprincipled interventionism.'"

If we deconstruct this rhetoric, is there any coherent idea in it? Take "human rights violations." In a world where Russia is killing journalists and Iran is jailing protesters against fraudulent elections, where billions live without freedom of speech, of the press, or of religion, could any rational person make the case that Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and the PATRIOT Act make the Bush administration guilty of "human rights violations" that come within one or two orders of magnitude of those committed by the regimes which the Obama administration is not distancing itself from but, on the contrary, cajoling and making nice with, despite not only a complete lack of reciprocity from said regimes, but even a worsening of their behavior? Of course, Abu Ghraib was not ordered by the Bush administration but punished by it, and Guantanamo Bay is still in operation and the PATRIOT Act still in force, so even the case that the Obama administration is distancing itself from the Bush administration's human rights violations is not tenable at the level of policy substance. The reference to "unilateralist sabre-rattling" is doubly bewildering, first of all because all Bush's "sabre-rattling" was quite multilateral, backed up by dozens of allies, second because while "sabre-rattling" seems to have gratuitous negative connotations, it seems to mean simply "threats," and if one is ever to use power, shouldn't one threaten first? Or are we to assume that wielding power is always bad. Presumably not, but that makes my point: this is not thinking, it is escapism, it is lying to oneself in order to avoid thinking, and in particular, to avoid thinking thoughts which will compel one to regard Bush with greater justice, and which will deprive one of the perverse delight of scapegoating others for imaginary problems.

Unfortunately, years of Bush Derangement Syndrome in the media have so degraded the thought processes of the nation's most gullible class, the intelligentsia, that the mindless phrases Nato recites may indeed capture the spirit of educated opinion today.

Nato

It seems possible that Mr. Underby missed the central point I was making: whether or not Bush was *in fact* a principled crusader for democracy (and multilateral, respectful of human rights and so on), if an audience fails to perceive that, then the meaning *to them* of Obama distancing himself from the Bush administration is going to be different than it is to Nathan or Underby. It does not matter if it's unfair or even bewildering to believe bad things of the Bush administration when one is deciding what meaning people ascribe to his administration and by extension Obama's distancing his own therefrom.

Underby also dismisses America's increased popularity in the world by asseverating "Most of the world's population ... doesn't have an opinion about whether Bush was a principled crusader for democracy or not, and indeed couldn't understand the question" then quickly moves on to explain away opposition to Bush in terms of an extreme form of moral relativism that apparently dominates 'educated opinion' in most of the First World. This certainly makes for a pretty dispiriting international scenario. Most people don't understand democracy at all, and Western educated elites are all craven moral relativists. Perhaps the elites in China and in Pakistan under Musharraf were better disposed toward the Bush administration's principled crusade for democracy - certainly Bush cajoled and made nice with both, so I assume that was because they understood and approved of Bush's principled campaign for democracy around the globe.

Seriously, though, why would it be impossible to imagine elites opposing Bush because they think he pursued good causes in the wrong way? Madeline Albright probably distilled the "mass of educated opinion" when she said we should "support democracy without imposing democracy." Certainly polls consistently show people around the world - including Muslim people - strongly supporting democracy, freedom of speech and so on, but just as strongly rejecting attempts to impose it from without. This doesn't require anyone to be inconsistent or moral relativists. In one matter - holding America to a higher standard than its opponents - there may seem to be inconsistency, but we also hold clergy and other claimants to moral rectitude to higher standards, do we not?

Unfair to Bush world opinion may be, but Underby's exegesis is unconvincingly tendentious, as well as somewhat humorously intemperate.

Nathan Smith

re: "This certainly makes for a pretty dispiriting international scenario. Most people don't understand democracy at all, and Western educated elites are all craven moral relativists."

I'm not sure that follows. One could understand something about democracy, but not know enough about the character of the Bush administration and its foreign policy to have an informed opinion about whether or not the Bush administration was pursuing it. One could hardly avoid hearing that the US under Bush fought a couple of wars, but one might not know much about the nature of the regimes involved, and if you didn't hear or read Bush's Second Inaugural and other statements, you might well not know the motives of the war. And actually, even for Americans, let alone for most of the world's population, there isn't a lot of reason to get informed about public affairs to the extent of knowing such things. It would be much harder for the majority of the human race that doesn't know English or have internet access, especially those under regimes where the state controls the media. Political scientists sometimes call this "rational ignorance."

Nor does it imply, of course, that all Western educated elites are craven moral relativists. For one thing, the "craven" seems gratuitous. It might be possible to be a rather principled and brave moral relativist, with a moral, so to speak, belief in not applying one's own moral standards except within the territorial jurisdiction of the West. And of course, it implies at most that the median member of the Western educated elite is a moral relativist, not that all of them are. In practice I'm not sure the distinction between moral relativists and non-relativists is a sharp one. For one thing, it's hard to be a consistent moral relativist. On the other hand, it's also hard to apply one's moral standards consistently, for and against the *status quo*. It's easy to say, "Yes, it was right to liberate France from Hitler-- they taught us so in school, and anyway, it's *France*-- but to liberate Iraq from Saddam... I mean, we're just used to there being lots of squalid dictatorships in that part of the world, we don't even think about it anymore..."

re: "Madeline Albright probably distilled the 'mass of educated opinion' when she said we should 'support democracy without imposing democracy.' Certainly polls consistently show people around the world - including Muslim people - strongly supporting democracy, freedom of speech and so on, but just as strongly rejecting attempts to impose it from without."

Now, I think Nato is right that this is a widespread view. Whether the view is really, at bottom, a defensible one, I'm not sure. Certainly in Iraq, and in many other cases, there was nothing the US could do to support democracy other than imposing it. Moreover, trade, diplomacy, efforts to control weapons proliferation, cultural and other exchanges make the world's powers sufficiently interwoven that it's hard for a superpower like the US not to have at least some responsibility for the regime that is in power in any given place. In Iraq the US had helped Saddam come to power and remain in power earlier in his career, and the sanctions may also have had that effect, increasing Saddam's control over flows of resources and therefore his capacity for repression-- at least, I've read things to that effect, I don't know enough to judge the matter myself.

Also, what is the argument for supporting democracy but not imposing democracy? Is it merely a pragmatic argument-- imposing democracy never works; or it usually doesn't work and is very costly-- or is it a moral argument, that imposing democracy is, somehow, wrong, perhaps because it is a violation of a country's "sovereignty?" If we recognize the legitimate sovereignty of non-democratic regimes, why do we do so, and how can Americans in particular reconcile it with our own history, and our justification of our rebellion against England on the grounds of "no taxation without representation?" To the claim that democracy cannot be imposed, the answer is that this is false, as history shows. Indeed, it is not even true to say that it usually doesn't work: it worked in Germany, Japan, and now Iraq. It is true that it is very costly, which raises questions of value which are difficult to answer: should resources be redistributed from Americans to Iraqis in the form of political freedom? If so, what about to Burmese or Darfuris? And perhaps there are difficult questions about how imposing democracy interacts with other geostrategic considerations. If Americans would regard imposing democracy on Iraq as too costly, but for the fact that it was a shrewd way to bait our 9/11 enemies, al-Qaeda, into ruining themselves, does that element of national self-interest somehow morally compromise the invasion even if it would otherwise be justified on liberationist and humanitarian grounds?

Anyway, if Nato is right that 'world opinion,' as expressed in global polls, for what they're worth, 'supports democracy' but opposes 'imposing democracy,' then it seems to me that Nato was wrong to say that 'the world doesn't 'get' that Bush was a principled crusader for democracy.' They do 'get' that, and they are against it-- not against democracy (except maybe in a few places, like Russia and Afghanistan) but against 'crusading for,' i.e. imposing, democracy.

If Obama wanted to distance himself from 'imposing democracy,' while strongly embracing 'support' for democracy, if he wants to distance himself from the Bush administration while burnishing his pro-democratic credentials, Russian aggression against Georgia and meddling in Eastern Europe provides the perfect opportunity to do so. Georgia is the perfect *cause celebre* to use as a symbol for a new pro-democracy AND pro-sovereignty foreign policy, along the lines of US policy during the Cold War. But Obama has declined to do so, has indeed done the opposite. Indeed, almost everywhere Obama has been hard on democrats and soft on anti-democrats. Obama is not Madeleine Albright.

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