2011's Arab Spring, like its predecessor in 2005, presented a sight that always elicits natural sympathy among Americans: a popular revolt against tyrannical dictators. But beneath the immediate euphoria, harder questions lurked: who would these crowds follow? Would American interests, and the interests of our democratic allies, be better served if the dictators won? The Obama Administration has never offered any kind of coherent answer to this question, and the Romney campaign does not seem eager to engage the question. In fact, the answers rest on a major fault line in conservative thought not only about foreign policy but about human nature itself.
Here's the dilemma. On the one hand, you have the venerable view, with deep roots in conservative thought, that human nature is universal and unchanging: "human nature has no history," and is the same in all nations and all epochs of history. This is customarily presented as a pessimistic view, an argument against the progressive view of history as one of unfolding enlightenment and the socialist-utopian view that governments can remake man himself. In this context, however, the permanence and universality of human nature has an optimistic character as well. Those who stress the universality of human nature argue that democracy is a universal good because people everywhere share the same basic longings for liberty, peace and security for themselves and their families, just as they also share the same basic urges to violence and oppression towards others. In this view, the virtue of democracy is that it remains the best system for providing people with the ability to promote the former while channeling the latter into lesser forms of conflict resolution. The champions of democracy thus argue that while governments may not change men, men may change governments. Moreover, this is a well-tested method of improving the lot of the individual that has more or less adapted itself to do so in many different times and cultures the world over.
The Federalist Papers, which drew on observed experience with governments around Europe and America, are full of this sort of sentiment. As James Madison famously wrote, in Federalist No. 51:
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition...It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. 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. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
And in Federalist No. 10:
AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction...
There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.
There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.
It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.
The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed....
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.
...It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.
Set against this view is another one with equally deep roots in conservative thinking: the primacy of culture. The story of human history is most emphatically not one in which all societies have provided equal blessings of freedom and progress to their people, and neither the structure of governments nor the variation in climates and natural resources alone can explain these variations. Rather, some cultures - especially the cultures of Western civilization and the Judeo-Christian religious tradition - have provided a superior platform on which to build stable democratic regimes, respect for individual rights and the rule of law, economic development and scientific progress. The proponents of culture argue that transplanting the fruits of Western culture and civilization into the soil of very different cultures will always be a fool's errand, or at any rate that the specific political and legal doctrines promoted by Islam (especially when combined with Arab culture) are inherently irreconcilable with democracy and other Western values.
One need not look far among the Founding Fathers to see the sentiment expressed that democracy itself was only as viable as the morals and, yes, faith of the people. Ben Franklin famously remarked at the close of the Constitutional Convention 225 years ago today that the Constitution had given Americans "[a] Republic, if you can keep it," and in his prepared message to his fellow delegates, warned that "I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other." George Washington thought that the religious morals of the people were indispensable to a functioning democracy:
Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?
[W]e have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other...
Islamic societies, of course, face no shortage of religious strictures, but the proponents of the primacy of culture stress that those strictures are different, and less congenial to the maintenance of self-government and respect for the individual. Alexis de Tocqueville, who viewed American culture, and specifically American civil society outside of government, as crucial to democracy in America, wrote:
The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other; and with them this conviction does not spring from that barren traditionary faith which seems to vegetate in the soul rather than to live....
Muhammad brought down from heaven and put into the Koran not religious doctrines only, but political maxims, criminal and civil laws, and scientific theories. The Gospels, on the other hand, deal only with the general relations between man and God and between man and man. Beyond that, they teach nothing and do not oblige people to believe anything. That alone, among a thousand reasons, is enough to show that Islam will not be able to hold its power long in ages of enlightenment and democracy...
Arguments over the dependence of democratic government on the morals and faith of the citizenry are, of course, familiar in our domestic policy debates as well. It should be no surprise that these tensions have played out in the foreign policy debates of the Bush era and its aftermath. George W. Bush was never the Wilsonian advocate of nation-building for its own sake that some of his loftier rhetoric inspired his critics to charge - our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq each started with a traditional casus belli and, as in the aftermath of World War II, turned attention to nation-building only in the aftermath of the defeat and deposition of the opposing regimes and conquest of their territory. But Bush did increasingly, over the course of his years in office, embrace the "neocon" view that replacing dictators with popular sovereignty should be a keystone of our approach to reforming the Muslim and Arab worlds in order to address the root causes of terrorism. At the risk of oversimplifying, the neocon view is more or less that that root cause is the dysfunction of Muslim and Arab societies and the need of tyrants to direct popular rage at that dysfunction outward. In this view, democratic systems of government are a safety valve that allow internal tensions to instead be channeled inward in a more productive and less violent manner.
One of the main critiques of Bush on the Right was always that he was unduly optimistic about the Muslim world and specifically whether the Muslim 'street' actually preferred regimes that promoted genocidal war against Israel and terrorism against the United States and Europe. Volumes have been written on the intractability of Islamic political doctrines and their connection to the ideology of the suicide bomber, the impossibility of peaceable coexistence with Israel, and Islam's irreconcilability with religious pluralism or any form of secular law. This critique has only accelerated without Bush at the helm. Many on the Right have given up on Afghanistan as incurably backward and treacherous (examples there and elsewhere - including last week in Libya - show Americans on the ground being betrayed by their own allies). I'm glossing here over some of the deeper debates about internal doctrinal debates within Islam as well as the role of Arab and other ethnic cultures in addition to the religious element.
In the case of North Africa, Mubarak was - as FDR would say - an SOB, but our SOB; Qaddafi had been deterred and contained effectively since surrendering his nuclear program after seeing what happened to Saddam. The regimes that replaced them are not of the most stable character, and in Egypt in particular, even President Obama has now blanched at calling the Muslim Brotherhood-run government an ally. There are substantial arguments made for the idea that winning hearts and minds is an inherently futile task.
As both a student of the Federalist Papers and a child of the Reagan era, I'm naturally optimistic about the attractiveness of the American-style system of government to the universal aspirations of all peoples, and the adaptability of such systems to improve the lives of all peoples even when imperfectly applied. The correct answer, however, likely lies in between - the fact that democracy is preferable in all places in the long run is not necessarily proof that it is the best answer in every place in the short run, not when balanced against the protection of American interests. But a vigorous national debate on the question seems, in this campaign season, a long way away.
On some foreign policy issues, the two candidates present a clear enough contrast. Romney, ever the Eisenhower-era Republican, prefers a stronger military and a more unapologetic defense of American interests and rights abroad than Obama. Obama has tended to put too much faith in his own personality cult and too much emphasis on having America wear the hair shirt, from arguing in 2007 that "I truly believe that the day I'm inaugurated, not only does the country look at itself differently, but the world looks at America differently" to his much-lauded speech to the Muslim world in Mubarak's Cairo back when he viewed Egypt as an ally. But six years after they announced their first presidential campaigns, neither candidate has really laid out a vision of how properly to balance the roles of human nature and culture in evaluating the merits of democratizing the region going forward. That will have to wait for another day.