Online exchange

Online exchangeMarc Lynch, Williams College:

Reading through The Washington Monthly contributions, I see that Democrats continue to struggle with how to respond to Bush's democracy rhetoric. Attack the idea of spreading democracy (and maybe point out the flaws in motherhood, apple pie, baseball, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while you're at it), or attack Bush's shortcomings in actually doing it? Me, I agree with Tomasky and Biden and some of the others in this collection. Democrats should embrace the idea of spreading democracy to the Middle East, and point out that once you separate out words from deeds, Bush hasn't really done much to promote democracy. And invading Iraq was a really inefficient, if not counter-productive, way to do it.

The real problem with Bush isn't the nice words about democracy and freedom, it's the flagrant shortcomings and contradictions in practice. Bush hasn't put much money into democracy promotion programs, and the programs he's got--such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative--are deeply dysfunctional. His grand public diplomacy initiative, the Arabic language satellite television station al Hurra, is a costly and irrelevant white elephant, treated as a joke in the region on those rare occasions when anyone actually notices it exists. The administration's hostility towards al Jazeera makes it look terribly hypocritical when it starts talking about media freedoms (which, to be fair, the administration almost never does).

There are also some big double-standard problems. Most Arabs are deeply cynical about American intentions, and they can't help but notice when "useful" Arab countries get a pass. Tunisia invites Ariel Sharon to come visit, and the Bush administration has not a word to say when a human rights activist is sent to jail for publishing an article on the internet describing torture in the Tunisian prisons.

Dan Drezner, University of Chicago: This theme played a key role in Biden's essay and was echoed in many of the other pieces: You need to generously fund the elements of civil society that make the engine of democracy run smoothly. It would seem churlish to disagree with such pragmatic and reasonable advice. So let me sound churlish--this sort of activity has the potential to be counterproductive to democracy promotion.

Exhibit A is Russia. The political scientist Sarah Henderson has done extensive fieldwork looking at Russian civil society that received funding from USAID, the Soros foundation, or other Western sources. And what she found was disturbing. Western funding of the NGO community in Russia has led to perverse tradeoffs in the creation of a democratic civil society. When these civic organizations become more dependent upon foreign material resources, their ability to mobilize or even connect with their alleged constituents decreased. Organizations that received western finding become too wrapped up in pleasing their donors with monthly reports and snazzy conferences--in the process, they triggered distrust among Russians suspicious of their funding sources.

If you think about how this would/will play out in the Arab world, things don't look great. Most Arab regimes function as rentier states--governments that don't need to ask much of their citizenry because of oil revenues and the like. Boosting democracy aid to nongovernmental elements in the region has the potential to cause rentier governments to persist with a difference source of funding.

I'm not saying that Biden's suggestion of funding civil society is worthless--but it's not even close to the magic bullet that many liberals believe it to be.

Marc Lynch: The invasion of Iraq changed things, no doubt about it--and, not the least, put an end to the much-hated and much-abused Iraq sanctions. But its effects on democratic reforms are all second order and indirect. In social science jargon, invading Iraq was neither necessary nor sufficient for democratic reforms in the region.

The occupation didn't introduce the idea of democratic reforms. There were plenty of Arabs demanding such reforms before the Iraq war. They didn't need an American army in Baghdad to want democratic change, a more accountable and transparent government, a freer media, and all the other things they've been demanding for years. They didn't need to see Iraqi elections to demand elections of their own--they've been doing so for years.

The occupation of Iraq also hasn't substantially changed their prospects for getting those reforms. I don't think that the "demonstration effect" of an Iraqi democracy (even if there were such a thing) is really all that significant. Local factors matter far more in each Arab country.

And don't forget, the lessons of Iraq remain pretty ambiguous. The elections were an exalting moment, but, for most of the occupation period, the Arab view of Iraq has been (fairly or unfairly) one of an unpopular occupation, intense violence, Abu Ghraib, and so on. The elections helped, but let's face it--there's still a violent insurgency going on, the elections led to months of political stalemate, 'and the thrill of the elections wore off a while ago. I don't think many Arabs look at Iraq as something to emulate.

Dan Drezner: Let's state as given that the January election in Iraq was strong evidence that democracy has made some inroads in Iraq. What about the rest of the region? I'm surprised that Marc is downplaying the significance of the Iraqi elections, since I would suggest that the causal mechanism through which the election mattered was having the election broadcast and commentated to death on al Jazeera and other Arab media outlets. The fact that independent Arab media covered the event so well sent a credible signal to other Arabs about the Iraqi desire for democracy.

I'll go even further and make a truly counter-intuitive suggestion: The Iraqi elections mattered more because of the violent insurgency. What stunned everyone was not just that the election was successful, but that the initial conditions for success were so poor. What the Iraqi election signaled to indigenous activists--and the governments in the region--was that it was possible for peaceful demonstrations of political voice to blunt the power of violence as a political tool.