Bush and Robespierre

When Chou En-Lai, Mao’s foreign minister, was asked what he thought of the French Revolution, he replied: “It is too early to say.” The French Revolution soon led to the Reign of Terror, in which the revolutionary Robespierre guillotined scores of fellow revolutionaries (in the name of democracy and patriotism), and was finally guillotined himself. Critics like Burke, in Britain, said this proved conclusively that democracy was a stupid idea, doomed to end in tragedy. His criticism then sounded self-evident. But today it sounds so myopic that we smile at it. Lesson: many historic events start with blunders and bloodshed, and are recognisable as turning points only decades later.

George W Bush, in the inaugural speech of his second term as US President, pledged to promote democracy and remove all tyrants. Reaction: Gosh, is he going to sack Dick Cheney? Bush will not laugh at the joke: he wants to be taken seriously.

Most Indian commentators denounce his blunders in Iraq. I sometimes feel like screaming when Bush puts on his half-fake smile and lies through his teeth on TV. But I then remind myself that his blunders may be no worse than the French Revolution’s, his lies may be no worse than Robespierre’s, and we should beware of repeating Burke’s myopic condemnation.

Neither Bush nor his successors will spend billions or go to war purely for the altruistic benefit of world democracy. But they may indeed do so in the self-interest of the USA: democracy abroad suddenly looks like an essential condition for America’s own security.

For decades, critics have jeered at the US for paying lip-service to democracy but in practice supporting friendly autocrats. This criticism originally came from the left. But after 9/11 it was echoed by neo-conservatives.

In the Middle East, there are no democracies. The US historically aimed (like the Soviet Union) to build bridges with friendly autocrats. But excellent relations with autocrats did not mean excellent relations with Muslim citizens. To many citizens, the US was the evil power that sustained odious rulers. This was felt not only by liberals seeking democracy but Islamic militants. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Islamists in Algeria, ayatollahs in Iran, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Osama in Saudi Arabia exemplified the trend.

Meanwhile, autocrats in the region played a cynical game. They totally controlled the media and allowed no criticism of themselves. But they happily allowed virulent criticism of the US, especially on Palestine. Thus, Middle East autocrats cynically channelled public anger away from themselves towards the US, and actually encouraged anti-US feeling. This increased their personal security at the expense of US security, something not understood for a long time. Then, 9/11 exploded the notion that good relations with the Middle East rulers ensured US security. On the contrary, this policy fuelled the hate of fanatical Islamists, who proved on 9/11 that they could inflict immense damage with no support from foreign governments. Osama’s quarrel with the Saudi royal family became an attack on the World Trade Centre.

So, many thinkers in the USA now seek a new approach. Quelling militancy cannot be done by friendly autocrats. Rather, it requires a liberal democracy that provides safety valves for grievances, and resolves disputes without making militancy the only outlet for dissidents. So, replace autocracies by democracies, in America’s own self-interest.

Good theory, but how is it to be done? Neither Bush nor his critics have a good answer. Some critics favour non-interference, favour waiting for democracy movements to rise indigenously and then support them from outside. But no Saddam or Saudi king will allow this. Waiting for democracy amounts, in practice, to backing autocracy.

On the other hand, Bush’s alternative of promoting democracy at gunpoint looks an appalling mess right now. Maybe 50 years down the mess will evolve into proper democracy, as the Reign of Terror did. Maybe in 50 years the Bush invasion will look like the turning point for democracy in the Middle East. Robespierre and Bush are two bloodthirsty incompetents who ruined a good idea. Yet, time has vindicated one and may ltimately vindicate the other. As Chou en-Lai put it, it is too early to say.

But it seems to me probable that the Bush approach will fail. Americans are naive to think that democracy can be transplanted in countries where dissent has traditionally been regarded as treason. Changing the mind-set to make dissent not just permissible but honourable will be very tough. It may take decades. Iraq is a lousy place for such a difficult experiment, given the antagonism between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds.

A democratic Middle East will unquestionably make the world a safer place. But neither Bush nor his critics have produced any convincing way of achieving this. I suspect we face decades of blood and mess.

What do you think?