Democracy and Sitzfleisch

Rachel Belton of the Truman Project (which I blogged approvingly about) emailed me this morning to point me at co-founder Matthew Spence’s op-ed in the Sunday L.A. Times.

I’d already clipped it for blogging, not because it was from the Truman Project, but because Spence made three key points that I hear rarely and agree with completely. I’d like to see these points made over and over louder and louder, until they become truisms. And I’m happy to align myself with someone who makes them.Now let’s go over them:

Americans are developing democracy promotion fatigue. In Iraq, we face the hard truth that democracy is more than the absence of dictatorship. American voters rarely have much tolerance for a policy requiring patience, struggle and disappointment. During the campaign, President Bush downplayed the hard work of democracy promotion, while John Kerry seemed to avoid the phrase altogether. Even the foreign aid community increasingly speaks of supporting “development” and “good government,” as “democracy” becomes a four-letter word.


These victories of democracy do not attract the same attention as last Sunday’s election results. But democracy does not happen only on election day; it is based on broader change that includes a free press, civil society and rule of law.

and, finally

Americans are drawn to the idea that democracy is made with a dictator’s downfall or a free election four years later. But the way we imagine democracy as a series of Kodak moments must give way to the reality that democracy promotion is about slow and steady progress, with inevitable setbacks and struggles along the way.

What we are trying to do in the world is damn difficult, as all important things are. Sadly, killing people is easy. Freeing them is hard, because first and foremost we must create the conditions under which they can free themselves.

My biggest fear throughout this Iraq cycle is that we would not have the bottle for it, as the British say. That we would grow impatient, frustrated, repelled by the losses and damage to our own people and those we would hope to free.

It’s equally true in the Ukraine and elsewhere. We are settling in for a long project. It will occupy us and to some extent, our children. It’s worth it, though, because while freedom isn’t the natural condition of humanity – history is too full of counterexamples to believe that – it is the future of humanity.

12 thoughts on “Democracy and Sitzfleisch”

  1. Americans are developing democracy promotion fatigue.

    Sad but true. That this was totally foreseeable was one of the several reasons that I opposed the Iraq War at the outset.

    But we’re there now and the only acceptable alternative is victory. Whatever that means and whatever that costs.

  2. Bush didn’t talk up the difficulty of democratic promotion in Iraq during the campaign? What about that stutter of “hard work…it’s hard work” he developed in the first debate?

  3. It would be more accurate to say that rather than lacking patience, Americans tend to be more practical than idealistic. If they can help another country for little cost, they will. If the costs begin to rise, they begin to wonder whether the project is worth the cost. What else would you expect in a country filled with people who’s main focus has always been the bottom line?

    What was supposed to be a cheap and quick transition from dictatorship to democracy is becoming a white elephant. The longer the war continues, the more the costs will pile up, and the more the American people will want to see an end to the project. Nobody is going to want to drop 60-70 billion a year into Iraq for the next 5-10 years without some signs that our objectives are being met. And that’s assuming that you can keep enough experienced soldiers in the army for several hard tours of the place during that period.

  4. bq. _”Sad but true. That this was totally foreseeable was one of the several reasons that I opposed the Iraq War at the outset.”_

    Is it just Americans that see everything as a novelty and become easily jaded? Have Americans lost their sense of resolve? Too often I’ve seen and heard comments such as this. The comment takes it a step further though and adds the twist of why bother.

    bq. _”But we’re there now and the only acceptable alternative is victory. Whatever that means and whatever that costs”_

    There is a hint of dissention in this type of analysis. It leads one to believe that a full faith effort is not forth coming nor is it required. It sounds as though the thing to do is go through the motions and things will turn out alright (maybe).

    This is exactly what brings us the issue A.L. has pointed out and I for one agree with him. The effort we put forth in Iraq must be kept at the top of the discussion list. Don’t get me wrong I’m not advocating all other discussions cease and desist. I’m not advocating all other events are inconsequential and therefore deserve no merit. What I am saying is they should take a back seat to the democratization of Iraq for the moment.

    Certainly one can argue that we tire too easily when certain things are kept in the limelight. Too much ice cream can be detrimental. It’s when the new wears off that we tend to take for granted the fact that ice cream will always be available.

    So what do we do about it? I’m with A.L. we continue to pound home exactly what we are trying to accomplish and we continue to make big fan fares about progressive movements to accomplish the end goal. Brain washing? Maybe. I see it in a different light though. Either people will get involved enough just to get it off of the table so they can get on to the next novelty or they will ignore it all together.

    When this type of attitude sets in, it becomes all the more important that we continue to highlight and explain why and what we are doing. Even if you already know and even if you already heard it. Reinforcement is the means for understanding the complexity and the reality of the situation at hand.

  5. When this type of attitude sets in, it becomes all the more important that we continue to highlight and explain why and what we are doing.

    Eggzackly. I’d like to see the government do a better job of providing explanations, motivations, goals, etc., as it did during WWII.

  6. What if it costs a trillion jillion dollars?

    Yes, praktike. The potential cost for withdrawing at this point could be existential. It would tell every bozo with a grievance (legitimate or illegitimate) that if he just has the patience we’ll back down.

    Have Americans lost their sense of resolve?

    I think it’s a combination of things, USMC. Lack of resolve, poor information, lack of a sound definition of the objective. Pundits misleading the people in one direction or the other. The Administration faltering at key points in the last three years.

    There is a hint of dissention in this type of analysis. It leads one to believe that a full faith effort is not forth coming nor is it required. It sounds as though the thing to do is go through the motions and things will turn out alright (maybe).

    Bull, USMC. I’m 100% behind a full faith effort. But there’s at least 10% (possibly as much as 20%) of the electorate that very obviously doesn’t believe in the use of U. S. military force for any purpose whatsoever. And another probably 20% that want’s to go after what they deem to be “the real war” in Afghanistan. So dissention, hell, yes. But not from me.

    Is the Administration putting out a full faith effort? I see little evidence of it. When have they spelled out the objectives? Give me the link!

    It was obvious 18 months ago that urban warfare as in Fallujah would be required and required through most of the Sunni area including Baghdad. And it’s equally obvious that the Administration held their hand, hoping for the best, and waiting for re-election.

    The Administration needs to start doing what they should have done years ago. Set out the objectives. Build a case. Enlist the support of the people.

    We can’t just declare victory and come home. The stakes are way too high.

  7. _Dave Shuler_

    My statement was not aimed at you. I specifically did not put a name to the statement lest I accuse you of something you did not mean due to my interpretation. If you took it as my objection to your support for the War in Iraq I offer my humble apology. My intent was to show how the explanation can be detrimental in my opinion.

    Like you I don’t believe the full faith and resolve of from the US government as well as the non-elected officials in this administration has transpired as of yet. Certainly we can point a lot of fingers at the administration, our elected officials and some of the distractions (the election to name one). In any case I see Fallujah as the turning point. Yes I’m still waiting for a more solidified stance from our elected officials as well as the administration. I expect to see a major change if and when Condaleeza Rice (yet another distraction) takes office.

  8. Dave, I’m in favor of pressing to win, but also monitoring the situation for signs that by our very presence we are being counterproductive. I also do think it is possible that the price could become too high, but we’re nowhere near that point. I don’t want Iraq to become our West Bank.

  9. Thank you, USMC, that’s very gracious of you.

    I also do think it is possible that the price could become too high

    The problem is, praktike, that there’s a psychological component to the fix that we’re in. We’re an extraordinarily open society. Our enemies are very closed. If we acknowledge that there’s a limit to our commitment, that will quickly become common knowledge and will motivate our enemies to push towards that objective.

  10. All in all, I think the Truman Project people are doing the lord’s work, though when I read stuff like “We need A New Grand Strategy For National Security”, my first instinct is to check my wallet and count my spoons. But what is the evidence that the American people are developing “democracy promotion fatigue”? People in this thread just seemed to assume it as a given.

    Not quite relevant, but funny, is Eric Alterman’s response to Nick Kristof’s assertion “These days, the biggest risk [in Iraq] may come from the small but growing contingent on the left that wants to bring our troops home now” :

    Is Nicholas Kristof insane? Right-wingers control all three branches of government. . .And Kristof thinks the “biggest risk” comes from liberals? Just what is it he thinks we are going to do to upset this brilliant war effort? Write a really nasty folk-song? (Who would play it?) Next up: Kristof will blame us for Rush’s drug problem. (Is it a job requirement for liberal Times columnists to say, “As a liberal, I say “the problem here is liberals” no matter how silly the situation? Did Krugman sign in invisible ink or did they forget this demand because they figured they were only hiring an economist?)

    In any case, I agree almost without reservation with what I think the Truman Project people are trying to do. My one objection is that it is important especially in foreign policy & defense to consider each issue on its own based on the facts on the ground, rather than to decide what to do based on some grand doctrine or strategy. “Democracy Promotion” is of course a much more sensible and appealing “doctrine” than the “Domino Theory”, but in foreign policy & defense “doctrines” or “strategies” in general are highly overrated. Or to quote the great George Kennan, a “Truman Democrat” if there ever was one:

    Shown a New York Times article describing Bush’s new national security document as a “doctrine” and “strategy” that declares the ideas of containment and deterrence “are all but dead,” Kennan said, “I don’t care what you call it. I don’t have any use for either word.

    “A doctrine is something that pins you down to a given mode of conduct in dozens of situations which you cannot foresee, which is a great mistake in principle. When the word ‘containment’ was used in my ‘X’ article, it was used with relation to a certain specific situation then prevailing, and as a response to it.”

    He said the only relevance between containment and deterrence on the one hand, and the new Bush approach on the other, would be “a very general one, because it rests partly on the theory, and I think the correct theory, that if you ever had a chance to do something without the use of military force, by all means choose it rather than put military force into the picture.”

    I am also *somewhat* cautious of the assertion that economic development and democracy promotion should be sold as “national security issues” on the grounds that they will make America & Americans safer. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but democracy promotion can make enemies as well as friends, and surely the main motive for foreign aid & democracy promotion is that they are good in and of themselves, whether or not they make us safer. I do believe that the Marshall plan et al did make us safer in the long run, but I am a bit cautious about over-grandiose arguments that funding anti-malerial measures in Sub-Saharan Africa is a vital element of our national security strategy. In my heart of hearts I do believe its true, but pushing too hard on this could lead to a loss of credibility.

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