Dana E. Abizaid
October 23, 2006
Published in The Baltimore Sun.
Referenced in Do They Want What We Got?, Nathan Hamm, Registan.net, October 24, 2006.

The U.S. government faces extremely difficult questions as the wars it wages in Iraq and Afghanistan become more costly in lives, material and time. While political pundits debate the nature of the wars' causes and consequences, the positives and negatives of abandoning the fight, or the strain the conflicts pose for the U.S. economy, two questions remain conspicuously absent.

First, what is the U.S. fighting for? Ostensibly, everyone knows the answer: The U.S. is fighting for democracy and its corollary, freedom. However, like the word peace, democracy and freedom are broad, subjective and ill defined, generating visceral reactions rather than clear, rational explanations.

Since Americans understand democracy to mean something good or pure, claiming to fight for it always generates support (more support than, say, fighting to maintain traditional power structures, to control trade routes and coaling stations, or to placate energy-rich allies). Therefore, to suggest the U.S. fights for anything but democracy, freedom and peace is un-American and borderline treasonous. All schoolchildren are taught that the U.S. struggled in its Revolution to create a government that derived its "just powers from the consent of the governed," fought its Civil War to ensure "that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth," and participated in two World Wars to "make the world safe for democracy."

But do people in the nations the U.S. expends so much life and national treasure on really want American-style democracy? This question is even more rarely addressed than the first. But it too is self-evident, since everybody wants democracy.

Or do they? From a Western, or particularly American, perspective, it is hard to believe that the world's citizens could want any other form of government - unless they, of course, are Islamic terrorists, fascists, communists or, even worse, Islamo-commi-fascists. Yet might it be possible to reject democracy and not be a terrorist, fascist or communist?

Here in Tajikistan, a nation ravaged by a cruel and devastating civil war upon the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, many average, peace-loving, rational citizens are not too keen on opening the current political environment to democratic debate. Perhaps this is because nearly 60,000 people in this nation of 6 million were killed as rival factions slugged it out in a post-Soviet battle for power. What many here want much more than democracy is food, jobs and decent education - needs that democracy is not guaranteed to meet.

Americans have a difficult time understanding that concerns about hunger, disease and stability often trump ideal notions about democracy. Therefore, it was hard for me at first to accept my Dushanbe host family's admiration for regional strongman Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, who refers to himself as "Turkmenbashi," or the father of all Turkmen.

The U.S. government and media constantly (though inconsistently) reinforce for us which tyrants we should praise and which we should despise. Mr. Niyazov is not counted among the laudable, and so the conditioned current reaction to any praise of Mr. Niyazov is disgust and disbelief. However, for a Pervez Musharraf or a Hosni Mubarak, we reserve sincere thanks, and we believe government proclamations and media reports that these leaders have a popular mandate to rule. Why some leaders are tyrants and others not is explained for us by such illuminati as the infallible President Bush, the indefatigable Donald H. Rumsfeld or the intrepid Condoleezza Rice.

When one hears praise for current Central Asian strongmen such as "Turkmenbashi" or their ideological forefathers, Lenin and Stalin, it is right to be appalled. But it is also right to consider why citizens might be nostalgic for the days of order and stability. Unfortunately, the unquestionable though vague term democracy limits much important debate and precludes any understanding of the people the U.S. attempts to bring representative government to.

Of course, Tajikistan was not better off under the Soviets, and Turkmenistan is not a Central Asian utopia. To suggest Iraq and Afghanistan were more stable under Saddam Hussein or the Taliban may upset the countless Americans whose family members have given their lives to topple those regimes, but it is undeniable that average citizens lived in relative peace under these totalitarians and did not face the prospect of being killed by stray U.S. bombs (President Bill Clinton's impetuous 1998 attack on Afghanistan and frequent U.S. and British bombing raids on Mr. Hussein's Iraq excluded).

Therefore, the question of whether wars to bestow democracy are worth the death, destruction and debt they bring, or if democracy is in fact the best form of government for all nations, needs to be discussed. A debate in the United States about the nature and meaning of our own democracy and the brand we endeavor to export would be a good place to start.

Josh October 24, 2006
I share your frustration with Abizaid’s piece, especially his glossing over of the very different forms of democracy we tolerate. The Asian democracies, especially South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, all have very differing levels of liberalism—including restrictions on firearms that would make a standard Red Stater blush. Similarly, though a new wave of anti-American Leftism is sweeping South America, little thought is given to whether the people there actually want a more socialist economic system (I’m speaking of places like Brazil under Silva and Bolivia under Morales, even Nicaragua under Ortega, rather than Venezuela under Chavez or Cuba under Castro).

I actually encountered a similar sentiment in Kazakhstan. One Russian girl (named Olga, natch) told me of how well off her family was under the Soviets, and how little they had now. Many, especially the Russians, spoke of Stalin and even Brezhnev with nostalgia, and of the future with dread.

It is of course difficult to draw many broad conclusions from such anecdotal evidence (and Abizaid’s article is really just anecdotes). But the way people perceive their environment is of paramount importance in crafting policy. The Bush administration’s failure to do that, rather than its philosophical foundations, should be more deeply considered.

Laurence October 25, 2006
Nathan, Thank you for posting this. I wonder if Dana Abizaid might be a relative of General John Abizaid, commanding general of US forces in Iraq?

Brian Ulrich October 25, 2006
Great post! I actually noticed something similar on my recent trip to Azerbaijan, where Ilham Aliyev seems really popular.

Brian October 25, 2006
I think the article isn’t totally intellectually honest in a way. I think if you ask almost anyone who has never experienced any real form of “democracy” but on the other hand has experienced economic ups and downs you’d expect to find that they’d place more importance in economics over politics. People who have lived first with autocracy and later democracy have told me that if you have never experienced freedom it’s impossible to even understand what it is. How then could you think democracy is such a big deal?

But does that make it less important? Unfortunately, I think the war on terror and American hypocrisy has turned the word “democracy” into a cliché. It’s almost marketed like a commodity that America manufactures and tries to sell to the world with crafty slogans, massive advertising and fabulous incentives for first time buyers. People get tired of it, especially when it doesn’t work as advertised. But the basic premise of democracy is simply government accountability. Ask those Tajiks whether governments should be held accountable for their actions (instead of asking whether they agree or disagree with flashy “democracy”) and I bet you’d get wildly different answers.

Of course food on the table is always most important; and I think practicality demands that democracy should generally be viewed as a goal instead of a means. But despite exceptions such as China the fact is that the average democratic country (including 3rd world) is more prosperous than the average non-democratic one. Getting to some sort of democracy is the tricky problem, but I think it should always be the goal.

Andy October 30, 2006
My experience of discussing similar issues with Russians has led me to much the same conclusions as Brian.

People in Russia, just like everwhere else, have a keen interest in their own economic security, and need to make sure they are able to put food on the table. Russia today is an unstable country at times, and this does lead to a certain amount of nostalgia at times for the security they felt they had in the olden days of the Soviet Union.

But, having experienced democracy (of a sort) which developed under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, the general consensus I’ve heard has been that they would never want to abandon democracy, because of the extremely high importance they place on their own freedom.

I’m assuming that the people I’ve spoken to are a reasonably representative sample. Which does make it somewhat difficult for me to understand why there is such apathy about Putin’s current move away from democracy.

Maybe because it’s easier to notice that you don’t have enough money in your pocket than it is to identify when democratic freedoms are slipping away.

Brian October 30, 2006
"Maybe because it’s easier to notice that you don’t have enough money in your pocket than it is to identify when democratic freedoms are slipping away."

Even in here in America you’ll find that most people aren’t really that concerned with the government taking away their freedoms as long as it can provide stability (e.g. as long as they can get terrorists). So I think the idea of yearning for democracy requires rather sophisticated, long-term thinking that is often elusive.