Sunday, October 17, 2010

One Less Desirable Aspect of a Democracy

I've just begun reading Graham E. Fuller's recent book A World Without Islam (Little, Brown, 2010), and it looks very promising. Fuller's a former Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, but despite his terrorist ties he makes a lot of sense. For example, this is on page 7:
In what may otherwise often be intelligent analysis of a foreign situation, the focus of each study is invariably the other country, the other culture, the negative intentions of other players; the impact of US actions and perceptions are quite absent from the equation. It is hard to point to serious analysis from mainstream publications or think tanks that address the role of the United States itself in helping create current problems or crises, through policies of omission or commission. We're not talking about blame here; we're addressing the logical and self-evident fact that the actions of the world's sole global superpower have huge consequences in the unfolding of international politics. They require examination.
Notice the word "mainstream" in that paragraph, though. Serious analysis from non-mainstream writers and publications does often address the role of the US, but that's why they are non-mainstream. It's not a conscious refusal to engage the fact but, as Orwell put it, an uneasy tacit recognition that "it wouldn't do" to go there. It's to Fuller's credit that he is willing to do so, though I suppose it has something to do with the fact that that he's no longer in the Company.

Fuller continues:
There is a further irony here: How can a nation like the US, which expresses such powerful outpourings of patriotism and ubiquitous unfurling of the flag on all occasions, seem quite obtuse to the existence of nationalism and patriotism in other countries? Washington never fared very well in the Cold War in understanding the motives and emotions of the nonaligned world; it dismissed or even suppressed inconvenient local nationalist aspirations, thereby ending up pushing a large grouping of countries toward greater sympathy with the Soviet Union. This was a kind of strategic blindness ...
Aren't all local national aspirations "inconvenient", though? The Soviet Union was no more sympathetic to local nationalist aspirations in its own sphere of influence than the US was. I'm also not sure that "sympathy with the Soviet Union" was involved for those nonaligned nations as much as simple movement to the only powerful source of economic, political, and military support that was available to them. But it's normal for people to rationalize such moves, which may have produced "sympathy."
When we do not like a foreign adversary, we tend to denigrate them in strong, sometimes nearly apocalyptic terms. One less desirable aspect of democracy is that it seems to require serious demonization of the enemy if the nation and public opinion are to be galvanized sufficiently to pay a serious price in blood or treasure at war. And the message as to why we are in confrontation or at war must be simplified enough to fit on a bumper sticker.
Here Fuller makes a significant use of the blind passive: "to be galvanized sufficiently" by whom "to pay a serious price in blood or treasure at war"? It appears that he's thinking in terms of persuading a reluctant populace to go to war against an "enemy" by whom they don't feel particularly threatened to begin with. It may well not be in their interests to go to war with that "enemy," but someone thinks he knows better (perhaps because it is in that someone's interest to go to war), and all's fair in love and war so it's okay to tell a few little white lies for the good of the nation. Someday they'll be grateful...

So it's hard for me to see why Fuller characterizes this as "one less desirable aspect of a democracy." Indeed, going to war against the wishes of the populace is anti-democratic, as is government lying to try to persuade them, and it seems that Fuller has within a paragraph forgotten what he just wrote about strategically ignoring the impact of one's own country's policies and actions. Fuller appears to assume that the wars he's talking about are desirable, but that has to be argued, not assumed.

Besides, even rulers of the most authoritarian states find it necessary to work up their subjects into a lather of bloodlust in order to go to war, so it's not as if this "aspect" is specific to democracy. If, having overcome this less desirable aspect of a democracy, a superpower's government is free to rain bombs and missiles on another country -- let's call it Afghanistan off the top of our heads -- there's not much need to "galvanize" people in that other country into demonizing the force that is killing and maiming them, and it's not because they don't live in a democracy. The superpower will be demonizing itself, thanks to its disinclination to think of the people it is killing and maiming as people.

After the September 11 attacks, many Americans were in a frenzy of fear and rage, a free-floating source of demonization looking for a target, and they'd been demonizing ragheads at least since OPEC put a crimp in their gasoline supply in the 1970s. Our government, eager to distract attention from its own problems, was happy to put the pieces together, and it was easy to get support for the invasion of Afghanistan. But was it in the real interests of most Americans to support that war? Or the invasion and occupation of Iraq?