Readers who aren't interested in counterinsurgency warfare shouldn't be put off by the title of Mark Safranski's November 29 essay for his Zenpundit blog; the writing goes to the heart of many matters relating to U.S. foreign policy formulation, brings into focus a little-examined downside of democracies, and at the same time challenges a bedrock assumption of "population-centric" counterinsurgency advocates, whose views came to shape the U.S. prosecution of the Afghan War:
Of democracies that have not or have never needed to fight an insurgency, the supposition would be that liberal democracy represents the best vehicle for satisfying popular demands and defusing grievances. Further, there is an implicit assumption that democracies are functionally better at solving social and political problems and are less aggressive than dictatorships or traditional regimes. Therefore, a a key tenet of pop-centric COIN theory, the need for good governance, tends in practice to become conflated with implementing democratic and liberal reforms of regressive and repressive states, as was successfully done in El Salvador, to win over the loyalty of the population for the state.The essay also brings out a disturbing blip in democratic societies. As Mark notes during the course of his conclusions:
I would like to believe that this theory is correct for intuitive and anecdotal reasons – it seems like common sense because our experience is that citizens of liberal democracies lead more prosperous, freer and more peaceful lives and are therefore unlikely to pick up arms against their government. Unfortunately, this reasonable assumption may be shakier than it appears and have little relation to success or failure of a COIN campaign
Democracies are janus-faced in terms of insurgency. On the one hand, excepting the French Fourth Republic, advanced liberal democracies in the last century have rarely faced a serious rebellion at home (the 1970′s wave of upper-class Marxist terrorism never exceeded a handful of terrorists). On the other hand, these same democracies have an extensive historical record of provoking insurrection in overseas colonial possessions, fighting insurgencies on behalf of client states or even sponsoring insurgents as proxies against unfriendly states. This uneasily complicated relationship between democratic governance and insurgency mitigates any unstated assumptions regarding promotion of democracy as a natural adjunct of COIN; democracy can be highly subversive of traditional mores or it can manifest itself as intolerant and illiberal majoritarianism.All in all, the writing is a tour de force; I hope it'll eventually prompt a re-thinking in U.S. military and civilian academic circles and at agencies such as the U.S. Department of State about the long-held U.S. policy of viewing democracy promotion as a panacea. Too often the policy has resulted in American values being twisted to install in other countries U.S.-friendly regimes that only give lip service to democracy and are oligarchical if not downright tyrannical in nature, which always blows back on the USA. The U.S./EU-backed Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which switched out one oligarchical clan for another that was less friendly to Russia to run the country, is a prime example.
The current arguments in policy circles about democracy promotion tend to revolve around realism vs. idealism. (See George Friedman's November 6 analysis for STRAFOR, Egypt and the Idealist-Realist Debate in U.S. Foreign Policy, for a thoughtful discussion of the debate.) Mark's discussion goes much deeper than the debate and yet, with the help of a handy chart he devised, is easy for the less wonkishly-inclined to follow.
On a personal note, pondering Mark's arguments gave me a respite from digesting the unrelenting bad news about the U.S. relationship with Pakistan and the ongoing refusal in Washington to fully confront the fact that NATO has been fighting what is chiefly a proxy war in Afghanistan mounted and managed by Pakistan's junta, not an insurgency. After being immersed day after day, year in and year out, in following Washington's attempts to play ostrich, my frustration has worn me down to the point that I don't know whether I can continue blogging because I'm simply making the same points in essay after essay, year after year.
So to transcend if only for a few minutes a situation I consider so vexing and mull over ideas on 'great' themes was good medicine for me. I was feeling so chipper after reading the essay that I wrote a rather extensive commentary on it for the Zenpundit comment section -- Comment #13, for any Pundita readers who're interested.
In a not entirely unrelated matter, last night John Batchelor sat down with Steve Cohen, my favorite Russia analyst, to discuss the country's recent parliamentary election. I was in such a terrible mood about the Pakistan-Washington situation that I didn't listen to the show although I'll catch up by listening to the podcast. But John's notes on the discussion, posted at his show's blog in the Schedule section, bring out a very important point that relates to the habit of democracies meddling in the affairs of other nations and for purely self-serving reasons. John wrote:
Tuesday 1035P (735P Pacific Time): Stephen Cohen, NYU & [latest book] Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, in re: Russian elections:Yes indeed the West and in particular the USA was caught off guard by Russia's healthy opposition movement. Americans were caught off guard because it's almost impossible to get objective news analysis from US sources on Russia unless one follows Steve Cohen's reports on the John Batchelor Show -- and unfortunately, Steve's reports for the show are not on a regular basis.
Russian police still quashing protests; 300 arrests, then 250, including important bloggers who called Putin's United Russia, "the party of swindlers." Who's more surprised, Putin or the West? The West: it portrayed the political system as wholly under Putin's control, which it isn't. Putin's supermajority, 64%, enough to change the constitution, is down in the 50's. Communist Party now doubles to 20%. Yeltsin used tanks vs the Parliament in 1993; now, it's partly liberated for the first time. Also, first time ever that ruling party has lost so thoroughly. On a human level, people start to think that their vote counts.
[John Batchelor comment]: "Putin fixed an election and lost it -- deeply ironical."
A powerful Communist faction wants to transform the CP into a European Social democratic party. Now encouraged. Just (Fair) Russia [party] was formed by the Kremlin to take away votes but now goes its own way; got 35%(?).
Putin's St Petersburg crew? Three groups. 1. 2. Oligarchs. 3. Neolibs, technologist, linked with the West, have acquired power; Alexei Kudrin was the finance minister.
The Kremlin decided to be less heavy-handed than usual; still kept oppo off natl TV. [Kremlin] Worried about developments in other countries: bad elections lead to riots, lead to real opposition. Even Occupy Wall Street has generated nervousness, barred doors and high fences; fear of unseemly protest, demos on ramps that lead up to Kremlin.
Today, John McCain tweeted, "Soon, the Arab Spring will come to Russia."
Russia has jillions of nuclear weapons, so the last thing we want is Russia to be destabilized. Who do these cheerleaders think will come to power -- Thomas Jefferson?
Instead of news analysis on Russia, Americans get propaganda that's painted Russia's government as a tyranny. So Americans are blindsided again and again by a cadre in Washington, a kind of shadow government, that's oriented not to American interests but NATO/EU interests. Mr McCain is part of that cadre, I might add.
To give you some idea of how it works against American interests to be in the dark about matters Russian, consider how long it took for a route for NATO and particularly U.S. supplies for the Afghan War to be developed that was external to Pakistan. There was tremendous resistance among the 'Get Russia' crowd in Washington to the idea of seeking Russian help, resistance that set back by years the development of the 'Northern Distribution Network' NATO supply routes through Russia and Russia-friendly Central Asian countries.
So billions of dollars worth of military supplies were destroyed or stolen from the Pakistan supply routes, and Pakistan's junta leveraged its control of the route in Pakistan to tamp down U.S. protests against its proxy war in Afghanistan. Exactly how many NATO soldiers and Afghans had to die because of this, God only knows.
But there goes my good mood out the window. The upside is that I am now in just the right frame of mind to finish writing a post I've titled, "Alden Pyle in Pakistan, Part 3."