Towards A Good Samaritan World

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


I like this response to Bush's "realist" critics:

A foreign policy that makes freedom a touchstone will of course entail some
self-contradictions and hypocrisies and doubts about our sincerity. The same was
true when President Carter elevated human rights to a new prominence.
Nonetheless, in doing so he changed the world for the better and advanced
America's interests. It was embarrassing when President Carter fawned over the
Shah of Iran and the Communist dictators of Poland, Romania and the USSR. But
where are those men now, or the governments they headed?

Despite the skeptics, all historical evidence suggests that democracy
can indeed spread further, that America can serve as an agent of its
advancement, as it has done all over the world, and that democracy's spread will
make the world safer. And for those who doubt that President Bush is earnest
about his campaign for freedom, I refer them to Mullah Omar or Saddam Hussein.

That said, Bush may have exacerbated the American tendency to be naively starry-eyed about democracy. Because our own history worked out in such an oddly fortunate manner, we are inadequately aware of the sequel to our own democratic revolution: the French revolution, which destroyed France's traditions and plunged the country into an orgy of bloodshed. (See my defense of tradition if you haven't already.) The French sequel to democratic revolution has been as common as the American one since then.

The Aristotelian distinction between monarchy and tyranny could be usefully remembered today, first, by anti-war conservatives, second, by those who want the Iraq war to herald a universal democratic transformation of the world, a group which perhaps includes Bush. Aristotle's political theory identified six forms of government:

One RulerKingshipTyranny
Few RulersAristocracyOligarchy
Many RulersPolityDemocracy

Tyranny is distinguished from monarchy chiefly in that it is new, not sanctioned by tradition. Why is a new one-man regime worse than an old one-man regime? Because those who secure absolute authority through their own devices, overturning tradition, typically do so through murder and/or deceit. Hereditary monarchs are likely to be no more evil than the average person, and sometimes their upbringing and a sense of their responsibilities make them somewhat better. But when traditional regimes unravel, in the chaos that follows a rule of "survival of the worst" is likely to ensure that those who emerge as masters are uniquely wicked, both by nature and by nurture. Thus Lenin and Stalin were worse than the tsars; Hitler was worse than the Kaisers; Ayatollah Khomeini was worse than the shah; and so on.

Saddam was a tyrant, a revolutionary leader who betrayed his own revolution, a man whose power was built on a series of highly public murders of a range of people from his closest political allies to Jews. To oppose his overthrow on conservative grounds is to fail to understand conservative principles, to be a conservative for the wrong reasons. Edmund Burke would have supported the war in Iraq. The same case against tyranny applied to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It might also apply to the SLORC regime in Myanmar, the Communist regime in North Korea, the fascist dictatorship in Turkmenistan, the mullahocracy in Iran, the Castro regime in Cuba, the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, the genocidal dictatorship in Sudan, and the Baathist regime in Syria. But it does not extend to the Saudi regime, which is legitimized by deep traditions. Nor should it apply to Communist China. The Communist Party in China came to power as part of a national struggle against Japanese imperialism. Their ideological heritage is unfortunate, but the Chinese people respect them for restoring order after a particularly miserable period of chaos. To my mind, the experiments of Mao, however catastrophic and misguided, were motivated by generous goals rather than hatred, and the regime does not bear the mark of Cain in the same way that the Soviet regime, the Nazi regime, and the Baathist regime in Iraq did. And since 1978, the Communists have governed China wisely; much more so, indeed, than most democratic governments in the Third World.

Bush's Second Inaugural called for a redefinition of legitimacy. And such a redefinition is certainly needed. The fact that Saddam's government, which had not the slightest sanction from either tradition or elections, which was the enemy of its people and did not enjoy the consent of the governed, which committed every conceivable crime without the least compunction, which was a sheer murderocracy; the fact that this government was recognized by the UN and the international community, to the extent that the Secretary-General, and hundreds of thousands of protesters, called the liberation of the Iraqi people from such a vampire regime "illegal"; is the most damning possible testimony against international law as it was before 1993. In siding with dissidents against tyrants everywhere, Bush is revoking the legitimacy of the worst regimes; he is withdrawing American support from this vicious, Hobbesian form of international law, which subtly makes us collaborators in all manner of oppression.

But if we're going to change the meaning of legitimacy, let's be careful about it. Democratic legitimation of governing institutions is very difficult, and the road to it is full of tragic pitfalls. Where checks and balances are weak, where literacy is limited, it all too often brings scoundrels, or rabid nationalists, to power. We should accept that legitimacy flows not from one source only-- democracy-- but from two sources-- democracy and tradition. And the former is not always preferable.

While rewriting the law of nations, let's bear in mind an Aristotelian distinction. Let tyranny remain a concept with a narrow range of application.


Post a Comment

<< Home