Liberalism v. Democracy, Round 3

The US invaded Iraq ostensibly to bring democracy to the Middle East. But the Middle East was more in need of liberalism than democracy – then and now. Lying at different points along roughly the same developmental track, Jordan and Tunisia together illustrate a better course for political evolution. Jordan is today an autocracy, under the liberal rule of King Abdullah II. Tunisia had for many years also been a relatively liberal autocracy, until the Arab Spring brought democracy. For decades, both countries have had excellent economic growth – but they are at different stages of development: Tunisian per capita GDP is 50% greater. (Egypt and Libya, which also became democracies in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, are also substantially wealthier than Jordan.) History gives us every reason to hope that Jordan will also, eventually, become a liberal democracy, as its citizens grow wealthier, and demand a larger voice in their own governance.

We might be less hopeful that Egypt will blossom into a liberal democracy, because liberalism did not do especially well under Mubarek. Though the economy grew, extreme wealth inequality kept the middle class relatively small, and corruption was ubiquitous. As for Libya, the present state of affairs is as complicated as was Gaddafi’s leadership. Americans only know Gaddafi for his role in international terrorism, and his regime’s extraordinary repression. Few are aware of his economic reforms – good and bad – which lifted Libyan living standards and life expectancy to among the highest in the region.

Unfortunately, the so-called “rise of the bourgeoisie” that brought democracy to the United States, France and England – and as well to Singapore, Taiwan and Chile – does not occur in countries whose economies are based on mineral wealth, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Brunei and Bahrain. Wealth tends to remain in the hands of the few. Oil gives the state a source of cash, which allows them to keep taxes low and their oligarchs content.

Kuwait – the most liberal and democratic country in the Middle East (including Israel) – is no exception to the rule. Unlike many of its neighbors, Kuwait was a commercial center long before oil was discovered. As in the West, liberalism was born and nurtured in Kuwait among merchants, which yielded a culture that respects rules of trade and property rights. Kuwaitis now enjoy the full gamut of civil and political liberties. Importantly, the example of Kuwait allows us to dispose of the absurd, racist theory that Arabs are somehow ill-suited to democracy.

One cannot fail to mention Hugo Chavez – democratically elected and reelected, and fairly liberal – who in the US was often regarded as illegitimate, or mischaracterized as a dictator. His many policies were a mixed bag and cannot be thoughtfully summed up in the space we have here. But even if you reject them, regimes such as his should be tolerated as hiccups that naturally occur within the framework of the democratic process. (Europeans surely did their best to endure Bush Duh’s two terms with the same sentiment.) The US should not have hesitated to condemn the coup that temporarily removed Chavez from power – because in the long term, Americans are safest and most prosperous in a world of liberal democracies. Once a government evolves to that stage, its perpetuation must be a major US policy goal, overriding the short-term advantages that regime-change might offer.

When time and space permit, the Field Guide will compare and contrast the US response to Chavez’s short-lived coup with its response to the 2014 Ukraine Revolution. And while we’ll revisit the tension between liberalism and democracy in the near future, this coming Friday has been reserved to offer liberals guidance in choosing the best course in the mounting crisis in Iraq.











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