Monday, February 28, 2011

Democracy and Predictability in the Middle East

American foreign policy elites are now facing the difficult choice of deciding if our short-term goals are in fostering democracy in the Middle East, or in quietly propping up authoritarian allies in the region. Even if policy-makers have a choice, it not an easy one to make. Certainly, in the long run, democracy in the Middle East would likely remove the breeding conditions for terrorism and resentment towards the West, but in the short run, transitioning toward democracy is a highly volatile project and in the meantime our strategic interests in the region could be compromised.

That is why until September 11, 2001, there has been an unspoken consensus that democracy in the Middle East matters less than friends in the Middle East. It has certainly been easier for the United States to negotiate with Kings and dictators than they have with the unorganized masses. We are not alone in taking the path of least resistance. The Soviet Union and the British empire operated on the same principle, prioritizing predictability over democracy. Indeed, almost all the monarchies in the Middle East were created by the British, trying to replicate the balance of power called the Concert of Europe which had prevailed in Europe in the 19th century.

This top-down, and short-term approach to regional order and predictability had its consequences in crowding out the more sustainable, bottom-up approach. The result of imposing an authoritarian solution from above is that whereas countries in the West developed democratic institutions and traditions, countries in the Middle East were developmentally arrested, never allowed to develop the apparatuses of self-rule, including a system of government accountability, a separation and division of powers, codified laws, stable political parties, a free and open media, and an engaged and educated citizenry. The existence of a major resource, oil, made it especially difficult for countries in the Middle East to break out of their arrested development, because leaders propped up by oil revenue spent their energies defending their control of resources rather than fighting for the affections of the people. As a result, most countries in the region failed to develop electorally responsive mechanisms to allocate and check political power. By choosing democracy over predictability and the path of least resistance, the US and the West made it more likely that the Middle East would enjoy neither in the future.

September 11 and the war in Iraq it precipitated temporarily blurred this conclusion because it appeared that we could seek democracy and predictability at the same time, or at least the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration promised. The relative success of the Iraq war blurred the zero-sum game between democracy and predictability by seeking the latter in the name of the former. But the temporary marriage between our commitment to democracy and predictability in the Middle East could last only as long as our commitment to the former was tentative and calibrated.

The uprisings in Tunisia, however, has put this marriage to the test. As the wave of protest spreads in the Middle East, some neo-conservatives are now realizing that they got more than they bargained for, and the instinct to return to short-term thinking in the US has returned. The US can take on the project of democracy one country at a time -- starting for example in Iraq -- but it cannot do this in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen all at once. Policy-makers and the elected politicians who appointed them have to worry about the here and now too. And that means thinking about the markets, oil prices, and friendly counter-weights to rogue regimes like Iran, which necessarily become more powerful as the authoritarian regimes around it crumble. With even the King of Bahrain now talking about reforms, and protests starting in the normally peaceful Oman, democracy is turning out to be an even more universal aspiration than the Straussians propagandizing the war in Iraq have led the world to believe.

Whether or not we are ready, democracy's Pandora's box has been unlatched in the Middle East, and since democracy takes a while to be established, we will likely not see either democracy or predictability in the region for quite a while.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why Wisconsin Democrats are Fumbling on their Message

There was a time when the rights of workers, even government workers, to collectively bargain, was taken for granted. There was a time when federal budget deficits were accepted as a necessarily evil but it was only a problem talked about and no one addressed. There was a time when it was political suicide to talk about extending the retirement age or reducing Social Security benefits. Whatever that is left of the political consensus of the last half-century is unraveling today into a cantankerous politics in which settled issues are now up for political re-litigation. 

Democrats are on the defensive because they have never taken seriously the diversity of the Republican party, and have therefore failed to anticipate the insurgency of fiscal conservatism that began in 2009. They are fumbling to define a strategy to defend labor in Wisconsin because they have for so long been fighting a different enemy, neo-conservatism – which one might argue is a familiar cousin to liberalism in their shared  commitment to budget deficits as an embarrassing but necessarily evil. 

For so long relegated to second-place within the Republican fold, fiscal conservatism is today the pre-eminent breed of conservatism, sexier even than neo-conservatism. For so long presumed to be the heart of the Democratic party, labor knew not what to say when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker threw them a curveball, attacking the right to collective bargaining which had been entrenched for the last half-century. Democrats know how to protest wars, but they haven't had to aggressively organize themselves to defend labor rights for half a century! Obviously, there are a many number of ways of making up a budget shortfall without attacking collective bargaining rights, but Wisconsin Democrats did not dive straight into articulating this odd connection. Instead, they appear to have conceded to the framing of the problem in fiscal terms (by accepting the Governor's proposal that state employees pay 5.8 percent of their salary toward their pensions and 12.6 percent of their health-care premiums) and ended up restricting the range of argumentative exits left to them.

Successful political aspirants of the 21st century must understand the tectonic shifts which are occurring with increasing regularity in our politics. And politicians who are not nimble responders to the political cleavages of the day are condemned to fight the wrong battles. The reason why John Kerry lost in 2004 was because he was cast and perceived by a sufficient majority to be a flip-flopping pacifist. 2004 was not the time to challenge the wars abroad. (2008 was.) The reason why Democrats lost so many seats in Congress in 2010 was not because the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan weren't going well enough, but because a new faction within the Republican party was able to bring domestic politics, and in particular fiscal issues, back on the national agenda. 

For Democrats to stand a fighting chance in the congressional elections in 2012, they have to take the fiscal bull by the horns, even if it means renegotiating the relationship between the party and the clients of the Democratically-sponsored social-welfare state.  Similarly, for social conservatives who want to advance their cause, they must piggy-back it on libertarian issues, as advocates for the de-funding of Planned Parenthood have wisely done. 

Republican primary contenders should also note that seasons have changed. Dick Cheney is out, and Paul Ryan is in. There is a new issue du jour in town – though for how long, we don’t know – but it will likely be the major issue of contention in next year's election, with every other issue rotating in its orbit. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fissures in the Conservative Movement

In recent weeks, factions within the Republican party have begun jostling for power within the conservative movement. This is the bitter-sweet inevitability of being more than the party in opposition, but also a party recently co-opted into power. Whether the disagreement is between Rick Santorum versus Sarah Palin, or the Family Research Council versus GOProud , or Tea Party members of Congress and moderate Republicans debating the budget, or William Kristol and Glenn Beck on democracy in Egypt, these differences are only going to grow as we head toward Republican primary season.

There are, of course, differences in priorities within the Democratic fold as well. But the source of the president's incumbency advantage derives from the fact that these differences will not be played out during the primary season. He will likely enjoy the benefit of not being challenged. So when Republican candidates are invariably jostling for advantage, the president can simply go about his business, looking presidential (and raising money.)

The reason why Ronald Reagan's historical legacy has been revised upwards in recent times is because the children of his revolution know of no better way to hold themselves together. Or put another way, the celebration of Reagan only reveals the dearth of leadership in the conservative movement, which is still looking to the past because they cannot yet see anyone who can take them to victory in the future.

At this time in the 2008 cycle, Barack Obama had already declared his candidacy, alongside a formidable front-runner, Hillary Clinton.

Today, there is a long, lackluster, and uncommitted list of potential candidates on the Republican side (so much so that even Donald Trump managed to steal the show at this year's CPAC Conference), but no major candidate has taken the plunge. Why? Because whoever takes the first plunge would become the universal target of all those not yet declared, and will suffer the irony that the first-mover advantage becomes the first-victim-of-infighting disadvantage. The more potential candidates predict infighting, the later they will declare, so that they can stay above the fray for as long as they can. No one candidate feels confident enough to pull the three major strands of conservatism -- the libertarians, the social conservatives, and the neo-conservatives -- together, and this is why Reagan is still the godfather revered.

Watch the lesser known candidates be among the first to declare as they would be able to secure some national media attention when the Reagan Library hosts the first Republican primary debate for the season on May 2, 2011. The better known candidates have more to lose and less to gain by declaring early.

In particular, s/he who waits until the situation in Egypt as well as the budget battle between the President and Congress unfolds would better be able to pivot toward the emerging priorities of the conservative movement. If Egypt transitions into a democracy friendly to US interests, then neo-conservatives of the Kristol variety would have would have won the argument against the Christian and social conservatives, and the star of a figure like Mike Huckabee would shine less bright. If moderate Republicans succeed in neutering Tea Party demands in the upcoming budget battle, then we would have seen the beginning of the end of the Palinites.

Under conditions of global and economic uncertainty, the fissures within the conservative movement are only going to be exacerbated. As political outsiders, their common opposition to Obama was sufficient in 2010 to bring them success in the congressional elections. As power-sharers in government in 2012, the anti-incumbency narrative will not work as well as a unifying glue. Without a positive synthesis of how they stand together, conservatives will not be able to take on the president in 2012.

Monday, February 7, 2011

How Publius Might Counsel Egypt

As the situation continues to unfold in Egypt, and as the White House continues to walk a fine line between support for democracy and support for a new regime which may not be as pro-American as Hosni Mubarak's was, Publius, the author of the Federalist Papers may lend us some wisdom.

It may surprise some people, but Publius was no fan of democracy. "Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention," Publius wrote in Number 10. The mob cannot rule, though the mob may delegate power to those who can. And that was the genius of 1787 - a full decade after the American revolution, it bears repeating. Revolutions are negative acts where old worlds are shattered; founding, on the other hand, is a positive act, where a new world is created. Egypt has had her fair share of revolutions, and it is high time for a founding that will make a future revolution unnecessary.

But who should the supporters at Tahrir Square anoint to be the leader of a new Egypt? Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm, Publius warned us. The irony of this weekend's hagiographic celebration of Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday, is that the Framers of the US Constitution had hoped to create a system so that we did not have to wait for virtuous men any more, as the history of a capricious world had only done before. Egypt will become a republic when she no longer awaits a Nasser or a Sadat or a Mubarak. Even ElBaradei should not be mistaken for a messiah.

How would Publius have handled the Muslim Brotherhood? Certainly not by banning it, as Hosni Mubarak did. Instead, Publius would have proposed that Egypt bring as many political and religious groups as possible to the negotiating table, and let ambition counteract ambition. "A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy," Publius wrote, "but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source." If the Muslim Brotherhood supports suppression, then the solution to it is not more suppression, but to engulf it with groups who support liberty.

Finally, Publius' greatest innovation arguably laid in the fact that he proposed an entirely new constitution, not a mere amendment to the Articles of Confederation, as was the charge of the Continental Congress in 1787. Vice-president Omar Suleiman is apparently now overseeing a committee to oversee amendments to the Constitution, focusing in particular on provisions that would allow the Opposition to run for the Egyptian presidency. This is not a good idea because the Egyptian constitution needs more than piecemeal change. In particular, even the Opposition has been co-opted into believing that Egypt's problems could be solved by having the right person assume control of the presidency. But the problem lies not just in the manner by which the president is selected, but in the size of the office. Publius stated it well in Number 51, "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself." For too long, Egypt and the authoritarian regimes of the world have focussed on the first task of government to the exclusion of the second.

Difficult as it is to topple a regime, it is much more challenging to build a new one. Trying days are ahead of the Egyptian people, and things can easily go awry, as they have for the French revolution, the Russian revolution, the Iranian revolution, etc. But these are days also when Egypt can be remade as American was reborn. The ideals of We the Egyptian People may not be exactly the same as We the American People, but I would be surprised if Egyptians were not also looking for domestic tranquility, common defense, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty.