Democracy is Very Messy
You know, we in the United States have been spoiled. Our Revolution to throw out our British masters was tough. But the British left us with some very good institutions from which to create an American government and society. The government implemented immediately after the Revolution, under the Articles of Confederation, transitioned fairly peacefully to the one we have under the Constitution. Even the Civil War wasn’t fought by the United States to establish a whole new form of government.
However, most modern rebellions, revolts, and revolutions over the last 350 years that were started to throw out a tyrannical regime usually led to something far, far worse. Expanding on a piece written by Byron York, Ace states it this way as a reference to what is going on in Egypt:
A people blocked from democracy become infantilized. They are not trusted to manage their own affairs. Like minors. And like minors, they are protected from the consequences of their own preferred actions, since they’re prevented from ever taking those actions. And so insulated, they can fantasize about how wonderful their blocked plans would be if only they could carry them through.
And they tend then to adopt the bad habits of minors, self-pity, scapegoating, fantasy, magical thinking, “rebellion” against reasonableness and wisdom, and so on.
Looking at revolutions over the past 350 years, other than the American Revolution, shows Ace is on to something. There is a conclusion that can be drawn from understanding these revolutions as it relates to foreign policy.
First Baron’s War, 1215-1217: Obviously this was fought more than 350 years ago, but it is a good starting point since there wouldn’t be another similar revolution in England for another four and a half centuries. There had been wars, even civil wars, fought in England. But those were all about who would sit on the throne. These kinds of wars would continue until the mid-18th Century. This war was unique; English nobles had tired of paying levies to support King John’s claims to his ancestor’s former territories in Normandy, which he had lost to France’s King Philip II Augustus in a long-running feudal dispute. With French help, the nobility defeated John in 1215 and forced him to sign a document that would reduce the king’s power to raise taxes, recognize their rights, and require the monarch to serve under the law (there would never again be an absolute monarchy in England); this was Magna Carta. Unfortunately, the Pope refuse to sanction the document and the war was back on. It was still going on when John died (of natural causes) the next year and his 9-year old son was crowned King Henry III. Royalist forces under William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, eventually defeated the nobles enough to reissue Magna Carta and end the war. Magna Carta was reissued another couple of times over the next 10 years or so and the king’s power was permanently reduced. Even stronger kings were forced to adhere to Magna Carta, although many were smart enough to know how to get around parts it. The forerunner of Parliament had been established as a way for the nobles to air their grievances to the government. The Second Baron’s war that was fought around 50 years after the first one, while Henry III was still the king, almost reduced the king’s power further, but it was put down by royal forces led by Henry’s son Edward (the future King Edward I). After Edward became king, he further expanded Parliament’s authority so that he could concentrate on conquering Wales and Scotland. Magna Carta remained as the de facto English constitution.
English Civil War, 1642-1649: It started out as a civil war and ended up as a revolution. Commoners had been allowed into Parliament in the 14th Century (the House of Commons) and expanded their influence and power over the centuries. By 1642, King Charles I had ruled England tyrannically (he dissolved Parliament for 12 years beginning in 1628; he was forced to recall the institution when he needed money) and had alienated Parliament so badly that both the King and Parliament had raised armies. Parliament’s army finally had the upper hand over Charles’ forces within three years and Charles ended up captured and imprisoned. After several attempts to restore Charles had failed Parliament, under the primary direction of Oliver Cromwell, executed Charles in 1649 and dissolved the monarchy (Charles’ sons went into exile) and established a republican government. Unfortunately, factionalism was so bad that Cromwell ended up ruling as a military dictator until he died in 1658. Because there was no leader strong enough to replace him, and because England was devolving into a state of anarchy, Parliament restored an even more limited monarchy under King Charles II (the eldest son of Charles I). While England without a monarch was a failure, Parliament’s power had increased substantially. But it wouldn’t end there.
Glorious Revolution, 1688: After the disastrous reign of Mary I (1553-1558), England was very fearful of another Catholic monarch. One of the last things Charles II had done in 1685 while on his deathbed was to be baptized and confirmed Catholic. Since he had no children, Charles’ brother became King James II. James had spent much time in exile fighting for France and Spain and was exposed to Roman Catholicism. After returning to England following Charles’ restoration, he had married and had two daughters, Mary and Anne. But his first wife had died and James married the Italian Mary of Modena; he also became a Catholic convert. Parliament tried to keep James from acceding to the throne, but to no avail. Like his father Charles I, James did much to alienate Parliament during his three-year reign. When James’ wife gave birth to a son and heir, also named James and who would be raised Catholic, Parliament acted. Declaring James had abdicated (he was out of London), Parliament invited James’ eldest daughter Mary, a devout Protestant, and her husband (and first cousin) William of Orange to reign as joint rulers (King William I held the actual power; while somewhat bloodless, William did have to fight James, defeating the latter by 1689 after several battles in England, Scotland, and Ireland). Parliament then passed the English Bill of Rights in 1689, far reaching legislation that further restricted the power of the monarch, expanded the powers of Parliament, and codified the election of members of Parliament by the people. Nearly 500 years after Magna Carta, democracy in England (and subsequently Great Britain) was the law of the land. By the time of the first Constitutional convention a century later, these institutions were firmly in place for America’s Founding Fathers to draw on. This was the last revolution in Great Britain. (William and Mary had no children; Mary died in 1694, William in 1702. Mary’s Protestant sister Anne succeeded William; although she had had many children, all had died before Anne became queen, so she had no heir to follow her. To keep James’ Catholic son from being considered for the throne, Parliament passed the Succession Act, still in effect, that makes it against the law for a Catholic to become King or Queen of Great Britain. After Anne died, the law was used to make sure Anne’s successor was another Protestant, her cousin George of Hanover in what is now Germany.)
French Revolution, 1789-1795: Unlike England, parliamentary government in France was fleeting and kings were truly absolute monarchs. Economic conditions in France were pitiful by 1789 after decades of frivolous royal spending. The people of France revolted in that year; while King Louis XVI paid lip service to the people, he secretly connived to have his power restored. At the same time, radical elements within the Revolution were taking more power. After being discovered, both Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette were executed. Retributions first against nobles, then political enemies of any class, devolved into the Reign of Terror. It got so bad that eventually those who had instituted the horror were themselves executed. There were attempts to establish a less violent government, but those in charge were weak. Within a few years, a very ambitious army officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, took the reins of government into his own hands, eventually establishing himself as Emperor of France. And while Napoleon did implement some far reaching and positive changes for France, he also led the nation into nearly 20 years of uninterrupted warfare with much of the rest of Europe, causing death and destruction wherever he went. The French Revolution was an unmitigated disaster since the French people were not ready for a responsible democracy.
Mexican Independence, 1821: Mexico initially declared independence from Spain in 1810 under the leadership of peasant priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, but that was crushed a year later. In 1821, noble Spaniard Augustin Iturdibe led the revolt that brought about Mexican independence. However, Iturbide ruled as a despot, eventually taking the title of Emperor. Within a short time, he was deposed and executed. Mexico suffered under a series of weak leaders, leading Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana to rule as dictator on two different occasions. Mexico finally started to settle down for a short time with the election of Benito Juarez as President. However, France decided to involve itself in Mexican politics, invading the country (violating the U.S. Monroe Doctrine), and installing the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico. Juarez led a revolt against France and Maximilian, eventually driving out the French and executing the Emperor. Juarez would remain President for another five years.
Revolutions of 1848: This wasn’t a single revolution, but a series of revolutions throughout Europe. It began in France; after Napoleon was finally overthrown in 1815, France established a constitutional monarchy. It wasn’t successful. Riots and protests against King Louis Philippe ended the monarchy and established the Second Republic. Again, the government was so weak that it allowed Louis Napoleon, a nephew of the late Emperor, to re-establish the French Empire with him as Emperor Napoleon III; another 20 years of war followed until Napoleon’s abdication following the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 (it was a French military disaster). In what is now Germany, there were demonstrations for more representative government and German unity; the Kingdom of Prussia eventually swallowed up these German states to create the second German Empire and an autocratic government. The Austrian Empire saw much violence and bloodshed, especially in Hungary, from nationalistic groups seeking to break away from the Vienna-led government. The aims of the revolutionaries were not met in the least; Karl Marx used these revolutions as a pretext for his political and economic philosophy.
Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920: After President Benito Juarez died in 1872, Mexico fell under the despotic rule of General Porfirio Diaz. While the country did modernize, there was great oppression against the population, especially amongst the poor. An uprising threw out Diaz and a series of leaders backed by revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata attempted to establish some form of democratic government; all failed. Eventually, Alvaro Obregon rose to power, although it was still another decade or so before real peace came to Mexico. Mexico is still suffering from the effects of independence, French overreach, and an attempt to end a violent, oppressive government with even more violence.
Russian Revolutions, 1917: There were two revolutions in Russia in 1917. The revolution that brought the Communists to power was the second one. Russia had long had an absolute monarchy, although there had been assassinations, demonstrations, and riots periodically for decades during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. The Russian military’s debacle in their 1904 war with Japan encouraged further disgust with the tyrannical government of Tsar Nicholas II. Worse, the Russians were totally outclassed when they went forth to battle Germany in 1914, losing millions of men. At the same time, Bolshevik revolutionaries were actively undermining the military and the government for three years. In February, 1917 (in the old Russian calendar) a popular uprising overthrew the Czar and ended the monarchy. The leader, Alexandr Kerensky, did what he could to establish a somewhat democratic government and to keep fighting the Germans. He also allowed exiled Bolsheviks to return home, including Vladimir Lenin. Kerensky’s government couldn’t last the year; it was undone in October (in the old Russian calendar) by another uprising by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, with the assistance of the military. Kerensky fled and never returned to Russia, the Soviet Union came into being, the Communists surrendered to Germany, the Czar and his family were executed, and the Russian Civil War began which killed millions more over the next three years. The Russian people had overthrown one tyranny and installed a worse one, one that would murder tens of millions more over the next 70 years (not counting the dead in WWII).
Beer Hall Putsch, 1923: This was small potatoes as revolutions go; but it was to have far reaching effects. Following Germany’s defeat in World War I, a group of disaffected soldiers and civilians established the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, the Nazis. Included were two veterans of the German army, General Erich Ludendorff and Corporal Adolf Hitler. Hitler quickly rose to lead the party. In Munich during 1923, Hitler led a small putsch (revolt) against the government. It was quickly put down and Hitler was put in prison for treason. From there, he figured that a violent revolution was not the way to absolute power, so he resolved that if he ever got out, he would work through the system; he began to spell out how it was to be done when he wrote, with help of fellow Nazi Rudolf Hess, Mein Kampf. Believing Hitler to be of no threat, the German government released him in 1925. For eight years Hitler and the Nazis slowly ingrained themselves into the German parliament, the Reichstag, until they had enough seats to form a coalition government with Hitler as Chancellor (Prime Minister). A year later, he became Führer of Germany, absolute dictator. Democracy in Germany, in place only 15 years, died. We know the rest of the story.
Chinese Civil War, 1927-1949: This is the revolution that brought the Communists to power in China. In 1911, another revolution ended imperial rule in China and brought Sun Yat-sen as the first President of a Republican China. But China didn’t become a democracy as military warlords ruled semi-autonomously throughout the country. China’s Communist Party also formed after the revolution. After Sun died, China was more or less led by one of those warlords, Chang Kai-Shek, for the next 24 years. In 1927, the Communists under Mao Zedong began their war against Chang and the Chinese national government, fighting for much of the next 22 years. There was a lull in the revolution as the Chinese fought off Japanese invaders during World War II, but fighting erupted again following the war. After four more years, Chang and his government left China for the island of Taiwan, setting up the government that still rules there while the Communists took the mainland. What started out as a revolt against imperial rule ended nearly forty years later with the more brutal Communist government that is in place today.
Some violent revolutions have had positive results, similar to the American Revolution; most notably, the Greek revolution against the Ottoman Empire. But Greece had a very long history of good institutions to work with. Also of interest, almost every country that broke away from Great Britain after the American Revolution did so peacefully: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Pakistan (although Pakistan has had its own issues that have nothing to do with the breakaway). The same can’t be said for many of Britain’s former colonies in the Middle East. Even the end of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party was fairly peaceful, and a confederation of the former autonomous Soviet states was established, followed by independence. But Russia’s struggle to implement democracy has been tough as they seem to keep old Communists like Vladimir Putin in charge of the government.
Rebellions, revolts, and revolutions had taken place throughout much of the 20th Century in other Asian countries, South America, and Africa (along with various Latin American nations). In most instances, the revolution produces leaders who are either as bad or worse than the tyrannies they replaced. In Afghanistan, a violent revolution to end a Communist government and occupying Soviet troops subsequently brought the Taliban to power. Violent revolutions in Iraq eventually allowed Saddam Hussein to brutally rule that country for well over 20 years. The revolt that deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi has kept Iran oppressed by backwards-thinking religious fanatics since 1979. Since the mid-1970s, Lebanon is still in the throes of violence and oppression as the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah has now taken power of that country. The Arabs who were supposed to have ruled half of British Palestine in 1948 have been engaging in a bloody and fruitless revolt against Israel since around the time of the end of 1967’s Six Day War; conflict, sometimes violent, between various Palestinian factions (most notably Fatah and another Iranian-backed terrorist group, Hamas) haven’t done anything.
Egypt, the object of recent news coverage due its problems, has had its share of revolutions since the 1950s when Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power sometime after the overthrow of King Farouk. Nasser tried to set up a Pan-Arab state, nationalized the Suez Canal, and fought and lost two wars with Israel. After he died, he was followed by Anwar al-Sadat; after losing the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel, a treaty still in effect today. Not long after, Sadat was assassinated by terrorists from the Muslim Brotherhood, the same Muslim Brotherhood that is trying to take advantage of recent protests against Sadat’s successor, current leader Hosni Mubarak.
What is it that Egyptians want? If you read York’s piece, nobody really knows. In some cases, they really want a democracy with some elements of freedom we know here in the U.S. But in many respects, they may not have a problem with the implementation of a somewhat Islamist government, perhaps under the Muslim Brotherhood.
As I started this out, the American Revolution was unique in that we had institutions from our British forefathers from which to draw from. But even Great Britain’s path to those institutions, and those of England before it, was nearly centuries in the making, from the First Baron’s War to the Glorious Revolution. Almost all other violent revolutions following the American Revolution were brutal failures that led to worse tyranny and more oppression than the one left behind. If we use history as a guide to try to figure out what will happen in Egypt, we shouldn’t expect too much good to come out of it.
So how should we direct American foreign policy for events such as the one happening in Egypt (and other countries in north Africa and the Middle East)? Foreign policy should always be designed to benefit the country using that policy. Everything else takes a back seat, including ideology and values. Shared values are a bonus when allies with such values exist, but it isn’t a requirement. During the 1956 Arab-Israeli War after Nasser closed the Suez Canal, Britain and France were ready to assault Egypt to keep it open. The Eisenhower administration took a harsh stand against the two, and the American allies backed down.
Normally, you wouldn’t want to have allies whose governments are quite oppressive to their own people. But sometimes there isn’t a choice; we have that now with Egypt, especially as it relates to our relationship with Israel and our ability to bring Middle East oil through Suez. There has to be balancing act with those who are friends of ours. Obama’s handling of the Iranian protests was disgraceful in its silence; that should have been an easy call and Obama flubbed it. Now we’re hearing that Obama is ready to dump Mubarak without really making a good guess as to what could follow.
I don’t know. It’s a tough call. While democracy is a good thing, it’s really, really hard to get it implemented easily. Ours was a relative cakewalk once the British left. The only democracy in the Middle East other than Israel is Iraq, which we invaded. That’s been very messy, although it’s taken less time to transition to a democracy there than it has in every other Arab country. America demanding that Mubarak go away so that democracy can take root in Egypt seems to be extremely naïve. This is especially true when you know what has happened as other countries have tried to get rid of oppressive governments. Paraphrasing Ace, implementing a “grown-up” democratic system of government isn’t one that should be attempted by people who aren’t politically grown up enough to know how to do so peacefully.