Fat fingers, juicy pies and Uncle Sam's sorely embarrassing not-so little problem

The Future of Freedom
August 15, 2003

Shortly after this book was published, I heard a prominent US Republican Party leader on the radio repeating almost word for word its prescriptions for US policy toward authoritarian Muslim regimes.

In recent years, Fareed Zakaria has been the editor of Foreign Affairs , a periodical often used by the biggest fish in the political pond to justify their activities in philosophical language: the likes of Henry Kissinger, Anwar Sadat and Mikhail Gorbachev. His current post as editor of Newsweek furthers Zakaria's renown among those moulding US opinion on foreign policy. He was recently appointed to a select group advising the US Congress on the subject.

Zakaria has an interesting answer, expounded in scholarly terms, to a sorely embarrassing US problem. Americans proudly and incessantly identify their country with no concept more than democracy. Yet the US is also a wealthy nation with a fat finger in most of the world's profitable doings, and it wants to remain that way. How to apply its belief in democracy to socially volatile countries without jeopardising US power and pelf?

Thanks to this conundrum, a remarkable range of dictators - expert exponents of massacre, rigged election, torture chamber and Swiss bank account - have basked under Uncle Sam's benign grin and enjoyed his generous subsidy: Spain's Franco, Venezuela's Perez Jimenez, the Dominican Republic's Trujillo, Pakistan's Ayub and Yahya Khan, the apartheid rulers of South Africa, Zaire's Mobutu, the shah of Iran, Greece's Papadopoulos, Indonesia's Suharto, Chile's Pinochet, to name a few. They were not nice people, but they knew how to check the kind of radicalism that hurts US interests.

In Latin America and Africa, when fear of communism as a great American motivator ebbed, several of the US' most tenderly nurtured tyrannies fell.

In the Middle East, there was no such democratic trend: the US showed itself thoroughly aware that ending support to despotic favourites, such as the Old Testament regime of Saudi Arabia or Egypt's President Mubarak, would bring to power Islamist, fiercely anti-US, political forces. Yet, since September 11 2001, the US has recognised that it cannot go on with its cosy policy toward middle eastern dictators of repeating Franklin Roosevelt's verdict on Perez Jimenez: "A son of a bitch, but our son of a bitch." To curb ferocious popular Islamic hatred of the US, spawning the likes of al-Qaida, these regimes have to be hauled to some point within shouting distance of civilisation.

Here is where Zakaria comes in. American innocents say: let democracy loose in these benighted countries and if it brings in anti-US forces, so be it - that phase will pass. Zakaria has a subtler prescription, more calculated to comfort US vested interests. What, he asks daringly, is so great about democracy anyway?

Much of the book is devoted to arguing, justifiably, that democracy is not the obviously superior universal route to acceptable social conditions.

Zakaria claims that the global increase in the number of democratic regimes in the past decade has seen a decline of what he calls "liberty", by which he means the rule of law, the separation of executive and judicial power, property rights, the rights of free speech and religious tolerance. This liberty, he avows, was historically planted and nurtured in the West, including the US, by regimes that denied the majority the vote. He cites regimes in Asia, Africa, eastern Europe and Latin America that are apparently democratic, in that they permit multi-party politics, but that make short work of "liberty".

What a mixed blessing universal suffrage has proved even in the US, fulminates Zakaria. Politicians abandon all ideological integrity to fit the capricious results of opinion polls, while the fearsome god of majority opinion erodes the power of wise minorities to curb the ravages of vulgarising, intolerant majorities, in culture as well as politics. Still, as far as the West is concerned, Zakaria calls only for unapologetic recognition of the necessity of elitist safeguards against majority tyranny.

In developing countries, however, he will have no nonsense about American principles requiring the US to force nations into democracy. That would be particularly disastrous in the Muslim world where Islamic extremists will exploit the religious loyalties of the masses. Rather, the existing despotisms should be compelled to carry out reforms such as secularising education, freeing women of traditional Islamic restrictions, and curbing anti-American and anti-Israeli ranting in the media, even if this means violating freedom of expression. In the foreseeable future, the goal for the Muslim world consonant with American principles should be greater "liberty" not greater democracy.

Zakaria's thesis seems impressive, but it falls apart under scrutiny. Take his criticism of democratisation. In India, he explains at length, historically suppressed communities from the Hindu lower castes have recently gained a lot of political power, but this has meant the invasion of Indian politics by criminals and quarrels over religion. The analysis is simplistic. The takeover of Indian politics by criminals has affected all the country's political parties in the past two decades regardless of their caste base. As for Hindu-Muslim conflict, this was infinitely worse in pre-independence India. Its resurgence is explained by Hindu fear of worldwide Islamic radicalism and the discrediting of socialist ideology.

Outside India, evidence for Zakaria's contention that the rise of electoral democracies has led to a decline in "liberty" is hard to find. Milosevic's Yugoslavia is one of the few convincing examples. Otherwise, even the worst of the current "democratic" regimes, such as Belarus or Zimbabwe, had predecessors that were even more despotic.

The book's artful reinterpretation of American political values to justify support for "enlightened" US-backed dictatorships in the Islamic world will be gratifying to the hawkish forces represented by president George W.

Bush. Yet it, too, is flimsily based. Why does Zakaria suppose regimes in the Islamic world resort to religious ideology? Because they need legitimacy in the eyes of Islamic opinion. If they secularise under US compulsion, they will become far more shaky. The US will then find itself having to garrison these lands on a large scale with its troops. Besides, how can one be said meaningfully to have "liberty" if one is denied a free vote? Obviously, in any given country a minority with votes will ignore the needs of the majority without votes. In his pseudo-patrician idealisation of the "liberal" 19th and early 20th-century Anglo-Saxon ruling elite - the time before universal voting rights - Zakaria forgets this elementary point.

In any case, there is no reason to think that democracy, even fully kitted out with "liberty", will always fit US interests. Look how India and the US took opposite sides in the cold war despite both being liberal democracies.

Look how sharply French and US foreign policies diverge today. In sum, Zakaria imagines himself to be a hard-nosed neo-conservative US realist, but is in fact peddling a utopian policy. Turbulent populations will not wait patiently to be fed democracy in judicious doses at the convenience of a comfortable and condescending Anglo-Saxon elite.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.

The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad

Author - Fareed Zakaria
ISBN - 0 393 04764 4
Publisher - Norton
Price - £18.95
Pages - 286

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