Monday, August 31, 2009

Time to Turn Back the Tide of Afghan Defeatism

Murray Dobbin crows about "failure" of democracy in Afghanistan

In the "Saving Private Brian" episode of Family Guy, Brian and Stewie are trying to get out of enlisted service in Iraq -- an enlistment that is actually illegal, as Stewie is a baby and Brian is a dog -- by intentionally shooting each other in the foot and calling it an accident.

Even after Stewie and Brian are told that they're out of luck, as being wounded isn't enough to be sent home, their fortune drastically turns. Democracy kicks in.

Suddenly, a human pyramid of Iraqi prisoners collapses into a laughing pile of identical fratboys. Terrorists filming the beheading an American prisoner become barbers instead administering a shave. Burka wearing women transform into trampy women working a bikini carwash, spraying each others' chests while they make out.

Seth MacFarlane's message is a simple one: the notion that democracy will magically and automatically heal all the ills of Iraq is a silly notion.

Meanwhile, in an op/ed column appearing in both The Tyee and the ideologically parochial, Murray Dobbin insists that the outcome of the Afghan election is actually meaningless. He insists that American aid provided to the Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of the country rendered democracy impossible, and that the United States has undermined Afghan democracy because an independant and secular democracy in Afghanistan would surely thwart American imperialist ambitions.

In a particularly revelatory turn, Dobbin even goes so far as to open his column with a quote from Karl Marx.

The complaints of people like Dobbin -- that a perfect democracy has, as yet, failed to emerge in Afghanistan -- are every bit as silly as the rosy visions of a post-democratic Iraqi miracle that MacFarlane critiques.

Dobbin trots out numerous polls -- suggesting that, among other things, Americans don't agree that they're winning the war in Afghanistan, that Americans want a troop decrease, and that Americans do not believe that the Afghan election will produce an "effective government" -- to support his argument that introducing democracy in Afghanistan is a lost cause.

But for someone who clearly fancies himself a historian, Dobbin is uniquely ignorant to history.

Nowhere in the world, in all of history, has a functional and vibrant democracy popped up overnight. Ever.

Even in the United States -- if one were to take that to be a rough model for democracy -- the early years of the union were marred by an ineffective federal government. At one point in early American history, the state of Maryland threatened to secede from the Union because the other states refused to help them quell various militia uprisings.

Even the establishment of British democracy was marked by civil war between King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. History speaks for itself -- even Cromwell's victory, on behalf of Parliament and at the head of the new model army resulted in what was actually a military dictatorship under Cromwell. A fully-developed British democracy was still centuries of incremental change away.

Likewise, a fully-developed, fully-functioning democracy in the western model is a long way -- likely a very long way -- away in Afghanistan. That there is not yet such a democracy in Afghanistan is not a failure, and it doesn't mean we should abandon Afghans to their own devices and to the tender mercies of the Taliban.

Rather, it means that the western world needs to afford Afghan democracy time and space in which to grow.

In Fear's Empire, Benjamin Barber reminds us that a democracy imposed by an outside power -- at least, as this author would add, without domestic support for it -- is not truly a democracy. The same goes for a democracy in which the form of that democracy is imposed.

The democracy in Afghanistan may not resemble a western democracy as closely as we would like. But nearly every western democracy in existence today has grown and taken form over a matter of literally centuries. The slow development of the Afghan state is not sufficient excuse to abandon it.

One should recall that Americans once wrote off Iraq as a lost cause as well. But improvements over the past two years in Iraqi stability show that insurgencies -- even insurgencies as determined as the Taliban and their allies -- can be fought, contained and, given the right mixture of time and determination, defeated.

As Hugh Segal would remind us, the costs of abandoning Afghanistan are great, and would expand beyond Afghanistan into Pakistan and even India. It cannot be allowed to happen, no matter how utterly indifferent individuals like Dobbin seem to be in regards to whether or not it does.

The defeatism of Dobbin and his contemporaries requires that we ignore successes and pay attention only to the challenges and setbacks in Afghanistan. But considering that they don't have a credible frame of reference from the very beginning of their critique, there is very little reason to give their criticisms any more credit than their thinly-veiled conspiracy theories are due.

Democracy is not a magical panacea that will solve every problem Afghanistan faces. Nor should defeatists like Murray Dobbin be allowed to denigrate efforts there on the basis that it hasn't sprung up overnight.


  1. AS an amateur historian, you have correctly pointed out that no democracy has appeared over night. However, you leave out the notion that no democracy has ever been given to a people, ever.

  2. Well, that depends on how you define being "given" democracy.

    Japan's democracy was founded under fairly similar circumstances at the end of the Second World War, when a group of Japanese nobles asked General Douglas MacArthur for a system that closely resembled the American system.

    Clearly, however, the key difference between the two is that the Americans, by deposing the emperor, had quite literally killed the dominant Japanese religion. In Afghanistan, evidently not nearly so much.

  3. While America was instrumental in Japan's post-war growth, economically and politically, Japan had already begun moving towards a form of constitutional monarchy in the 1920's. However, like Germany's pre-WWII democratic attempts, the economic chaos leading into the great depression led the nation towards military rule -- the need for strength, rather than the desire to experiment with liberal ideologies.

    Thus, no nation has been given democracy.

    p.s. Even without Japan's existing attempts to democratize, they asked for help, and received help. They did not, as in Iraq, Afghanistan, and countless other nations in S. America and Africa, receive help without asking first.

  4. You are wrong on all counts.

    Japanese attempts to move toward democracy failed not because of the great depression, but because of the hold of feudal mentalities over its political culture.

    Moreover, the push toward democracy was not based on any kind of idealism on behalf of the business trusts that were making that push, but rather out of their desire to supplant the Samurai and become the political centre of the Imperial regime.

    Furthermore, in Germany, post-WWI democracy was embraced only as a method of currying favour with the allies following their defeat.

    The history of post-WWII speaks for itself -- the allies imposed a democratic government over Western Germany while the Soviet Union imposed a communist government over Eastern Germany.

    Various Iraqi and Afghan groups had been asking for help in deposing the governments of each state. In the Iraqi case, they had been asking for decades.

  5. Oh, Patrick, you're still clinging to half-facts on this one. Both Germany and Japan were trying to move towards Germany before the USA (and her allies) magically crushed them and miraculously resurrected them -- Germany's attempts at democratic reform date to 1870's, while Japan's date only to the 1920's. The failure to create a panacea of freedom does not change the fact that the people wanted the system and were trying to move their leaders in that direction. Yes, both nations lost their initial gains, though Germans chose Hitler's alternative and voted to name him chancellor for life (democratic, no?).

    In Afghanistan, tribal loyalties and feudal living conditions prevented the average Afghan from thinking of anything but daily survival well into the 1970's. Most areas of the country couldn't care less whose running a country they don't even recognize as a country, even though Western nations kindly drew borders on pieces of paper for them; they care only that the local government (warlord) leaves them alone so that they can focus on survival.

    The difference is clear, Patrick, whether you choose to see it or not. When a people are not trying to be democratic, we cannot give them freedoms they've never wanted. When a people are already trying to be democratic, and have begun to affect changes, we're not giving it to them...they've already got it.

  6. No, Germany and Japan were not "moving toward democracy" when they were defeated.

    As a matter of fact, they were moving decisively away from democracy in absolutely every way possible and if you don't know this, you're entirely ignorant of history.

    The Nazi party was democratically elected perhaps. But then the first thing they did when given the opportunity was decommission the democratic apparatus of the German state, and murder their political opponents.

    Far from democratic.

    In Imperial Japan, the Emperor ruled because he was believed to be, quite literally, God. That is the most extreme interpretation of divine right of kings ever offered within a state described (wrongly) by some to be democratic.

    Half facts? You're arguing in absence of fact.

  7. There's no point debating you on this. You're not ignorant at all; rather you're ignoring information in order to make your point by using half-facts. Germany and Japan, prior to WWII, were, in the case of Germany, quite democratic, or, in the case of Japan, trying to be. In both nations, economic disaster (you may have heard there was a depression in the 1930's) brought the citizens to their knees in the 1920's and Germans voted for change while Japan had change foisted upon them. Try thinking in scopes larger than war years. If you can do that and still disagree, I respectfully agree to disagree. If you cannot, you cannot.

  8. There was nothing "quite democratic" about Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. Nor was either state trying to be.

    While economic disaster is certainly one factor in the collapse of each country's democracy. But the lack of any democratic tradition in either country, weak democratic and governmental apparatus in each country, and -- ultimately -- half-hearted and cynical motivations for implementing democracy in the first place did much more to undermine those democracies than the Great Depression.

    If anything, the Great Depression was a coup de grace to democracy in each country.

    You're also ignoring the fact that, quite frankly, the citizenry of neither country seemed to miss democracy to any significant degree after the democracies of Germany and Japan were effectively abolished.

    There are reasons why the democracies imposed upon each state in the post-war period out-survived the hollow democratic shells that had predated them.

    You apparently want to reduce all those factors to a single one. It's bad history. Amateurish, even.


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