The Failure of Anti-Despotism, p. 2

It is not that America simply ignores economics, of course. Rather, it aggressively promotes the political-economic agenda of neo-liberalism to go hand-in-hand with the 'civil societies' of elite-dominated regimes. Beginning with NAFTA and continuing through the Clinton and Shrub administrations, the American policy elite has banged the drum of the importance of free markets to democracy. Indeed, the Clinton administration was the first to use the term "market democracies," and bring into the post-Cold-War mainstream the idea that, if free markets were only allowed to flourish, free minds would follow. However, this definitional linkage of free market policies with political democracy is often more theoretical than real. Even if China (whose market liberalization has continued alongside political repression) is a special case, markets without structural equity may do more harm than good. Economic globalization, commercial privatization, and free trade tend to widen the gap between rich and poor, and this can exacerbate crime, corruption, and instability, thus undermining efforts to build democratic institutions. As a result, U.S. promotion of 'democracy' (actually neoliberalism) frequently has a negative impact on a country's true political liberalization processes.

Indeed, one might wonder if the whole enterprise of the New World Order may itself be a superficial cover for good old fashioned American self-interest. Cartoonist Ted Rall recently mocked American interests in dictating who should lead other countries by suggesting that American voters elect foreign leaders. In his four-frame cartoon, Rall imagined a world where educated American voters discuss the merits of West African candidates in the same way we discuss Bush and Gore. While Rall exaggerates, his point is not entirely absurd. Essentially, American voters select foreign leaders, owing to America's role as global hegemon.

Sometimes, the mechanisms of American 'selection' are readily apparent. In Venezuela, a CIA-backed coup of leftist President Hugo Chavez recently, and spectacularly, failed. Chavez was democratically elected by Venezuelans, but had cracked down on freedoms of press and assembly. The United States, afraid of Chavez's support for "rogue states" such as Libya and Cuba, decided to topple his government in favor of a country which would be more pro-American. What prompted this interest in changing a foreign government? Perhaps it was Clintonian idealism, but more likely it was the fact that Venezuela is America's largest non-Arab supplier oil.

Even when the mechanisms are hidden, however, America applies its democratic principles unevenly, which have undermined its claims to the political high ground. In the Arab world, for example, America tolerates outrageous injustice and inequity on the part of Arab ruling elites - together with the concomitant cries of "Death to Israel" which echo from the streets of Beirut and Cairo - and does nothing to promote democratic reform. Is it because Arabs simply can't live democratically, as an Orientalist might like to say? Or is it because the United States, which currently leads the world in gas-guzzling, wants nothing to interfere with the steady supply of petroleum coming from the Middle East, and democracy may cause instability in the region? Remember, sometimes democracy isn't what America really wants; Algeria, which attempted liberalization in the early 1990s, saw Islamists gain support -- something the United States certainly does not want. So, sometimes democracy is important, and sometimes it isn't.

Post September 11, one might pause to wonder if the U.S. watching its wallet wasn't a little shortsighted. Perhaps if the Americans had insisted on a modicum of equity in the Arab world, the seething resentment of Arab have-nots, which fuels Bin Laden's fire, might not have been so intense. But instead, the U.S. coddled the House of Saud, the Kuweiti royal family, the Mubarak elites in Egypt, the 'Tunisian' Palestinian clique, and a dozen other corrupt and anti-democratic Arab regimes. Is it any wonder the 'Arab street' now hates us as much as they hate the Israeli Jews? At least it's cheap to drive your Land Rover to work.

If American 'pro-democracy' policy is overly fixated on style rather than substance, on institutions rather than justice, and is frequently subjugated to naked American global ambition, what then?

Well, we might begin with the fashionable buzzword of "strengthening civil society," which independent analysts have described as supporting a free press and free speech, the right of nongovernmental organizations and labor unions to organize, an independent judiciary, and a civilian-controlled military. The need to strengthen civil society --although not necessarily all these components -- has been embraced by the West, but it is usually narrowly construed as building societies that embrace U.S. values and U.S.-style democracy, both of which pave the way for U.S. corporate growth. But globalization breeds resentment, and the simulacra of democracy do not offer real avenues for change (viz. Venezuela). This breeds instability, as popular frustration, shut out of legitimate political processes, spills over into nontraditional forms - like Islamic terrorism. Perhaps what is needed is a post-colonialist strengthening of civil society, with the implicit recognition that the resultant societies may not look a whole lot like ours.

But don't expect that to happen. The end of Cold War imperialism and the accompanying rise of the "New World Order" have not led, as one would have hoped in 1990, to a multipolar world where there is room for democratic variation. Rather, the Western geopolitical agenda has evolved into the triangulating vision of Dubya - "with us, against us, or with the oil interests." The real failure of American anti-despotism lies in its inherent inconsistency, in the inability of America to decide exactly what it wants. Afraid to sacrifice SUVs, free trade, and economic globalization in the name of real freedom and stability, the US has embarked on a campaign to selectively select the fates of sovereign nations while the State Department slickly preaches liberty and justice for all. Anyone for a Coke?

Justin Weitz regularly writes about politics on his weblog, The American Kaiser.

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