John Agresto writes Was Promoting Democracy a Mistake in the 12/12 issue of Commentary.


So what led me to rethink the view that the coming of democracy to Iraq, and subsequently to the whole Middle East and beyond, would be a very good thing? First, the clear-sightedness of many of the Iraqis I worked with in Baghdad, especially those who were secular Muslims or belonged to religious or ethnic minorities. Unlike we Americans, they knew that democracy is simply another form of arranging power. They understood the obvious: Democracy is a means, sometimes a good means and sometimes a bad means, to reach the real goals of political life—peace, prosperity, justice, liberty, and security.

Perhaps because of the success we have had in America with democracy, we now imagine that democratic government doesn’t have to be crafted, but can merely be willed into being.

But what we are learning the hard way in the Middle East is that there is little in politics harder to create than a just and stable democracy. Nothing takes more art, more human effort, and more intelligence to design than a good democracy. Autocracy is easy; rule by tyrants or elders or mobs is easy. But a liberal and just democracy is hard to make and even harder to maintain.

What else about government did we fail to understand? Well, the most obvious mistake was to make so easy an elision, so easy an identification, between democracy and freedom. I wrote above that the flourishing of liberal democracies worldwide was good for both our own security and the safety of free countries everywhere. But the operative term is “liberal democracies,” not simply “democracies.”

But why? “Don’t all people yearn for freedom?” we have asked. And we assume the answer is yes. But the answer is no. Some people, perhaps most people, prefer other goods. Indeed, some people would rather be holy than free, or safe than free, or be instructed in how they should lead their lives rather than be free. Many prefer the comfort of strong answers already given rather than the openness and hazards of freedom. There are those who would never dream of substituting their will for the imam’s or pushing their desires over the customs and traditions of their families. Some men kiss their chains.

As good Americans, we may wish to say that all people deserve freedom. But to say that all people desire it is flat-out wrong.