Towards A Good Samaritan World

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


The Rose Revolution. The Orange Revolution. The Purple-Finger Revolution. Now the Cedar Revolution. Revolution is in the air. Democrats and dissidents are taking heart; dictators and tyrants are nervous. People power is on the move.

We've been here before. In 1989-91, the Soviet empire, from Prague to Kazakhstan, spectacularly collapsed. There were other democratic stirrings going on, too: Violeto Chamorro beat the Sandinistas in an election in Nicaragua; Vietnam undertook democratic reforms; and Saddam was driven out of Kuwait. Bush hailed a new world order.

But not in China. Whereas the Soviets ultimately stopped short of resorting to bloodshed to prevent the disintegration of their empire, the Chinese did not. They massacred thousands of pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and maintained their grip on power.

What is awkward for sympathizers of the liberal theory of history is that China, where the center held, was far more successful than the ex-Soviet bloc, where it did not. China's economy has flourished since Tiananmen, and China is now the premier example of a successful developing country, and indeed is emerging as one of the most successful economies in the world. Maybe the Chinese would have succeeded even more if the democracy movement had succeeded, but the Russian analogy does not favor this hypothesis. Most Russians regret the fall of the Soviet Union, despise Yeltsin and Gorbachev, and resent the imported notions of democracy and the market and the influence they have had on Russia. Their economy unraveled into a morass of corrupt stagnation. To transform a Communist economy gradually, a la China, seems wiser in hindsight than to embrace the market overnight. And it takes a Communist government to run a Communist economy. What happened in Russia did not feel like liberation; it felt like a social collapse.

That's why Hezbollah's pro-Syrian demonstration in Beirut today seems significant to me. It's a reminder that the people are not always on our side. Also, Americans tend to view all these movements in terms of democracy, and ignore the ethnic/nationalist dimension which may be more important. Thus:

Hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah followers took to the streets in support of Syria yesterday, offering a sharp reminder that Lebanon's popular uprising against Syrian occupation has not won over its 1.2 million Shi'ite residents.

In a display of political might intended to either cow the anti-Syrian opposition or enhance the standing of the Hezbollah militia in the coming power struggle, the massive crowd filled the city's central square and spilled into side streets, waving Lebanese flags and chanting anti-American slogans...

With an estimated 500,000 guest workers in a country of about 4 million people, the Syrians have a large cultural presence in Lebanon and in the past have been cajoled, ordered or bribed into participating in "Lebanese" shows of support for Syria.

So in Lebanon, which is a semi-free country and by no means a totalitarian state, a terrorist party can mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters to counter-protest the advance of democracy. This does not mean Bush was wrong about the universal appeal of liberty, or that the spread of democracy makes the world safer. But it does remind us that to hand out the dissident/democrat halo to anyone who can bring a crowd into a public square with a slogan and a flag does not a coherent political philosophy make.

Would an independent Lebanon expel Syrian guest workers? Should we approve of that? Would it re-awaken violence between religious communities? Morally, the war in Iraq was actually a clearer case than the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon. Saddam Hussein was so murderous a ruler that Iraq had nowhere to go but up. In Lebanon, there is a many-sided dispute. And as copycat democrats and demonstrators pop up around the world (e.g. Kyrgyzstan, via Instapundit), some will be opportunists, many will be ethnic nationalists, and some may bring a worse future for their countries if they succeed.

At some point, this wave of democratization may meet its Tiananmen. Some authoritarian regime-- not in Beirut, I think, but somewhere-- will violently crush a popular protest. And as history's judgment on that massacre gradually takes shape in the years that follow, that judgment will be an ambiguous one.


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