Monday, October 23, 2006

Andrew Sullivan and Reality

Over at Andrew Sullivan's blog, he's making some rosy-eyed ahistorical arguments. In response to a reader who pointed out that never in history has invading a country led to democracy, or led to the countries around it embracing democracy, he makes this vapid, simplistic point:

So question one: When in recorded history have human beings reacted to the sudden toppling of their systems of governance the way Iraqis are supposed to react after we topple Saddam, by peacefully creating an entirely different system of governance? Answer: Japan and Germany after the Second World War. Question Two: When in recorded history has a change of government in one nation
led to a peaceful and spontaneous change of governments in neighboring nations?
Answer: the collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by an astonishing transformation in many neighboring countries.

I'm calling bullshit on that one (actually, I did, but of course, to right-wingers, the actual truth should never get in the way of a good explanation for something, and so he didn't post it on his blog.) My letter to him is below. But one thing--when I finished grad school (in history), I didn't really buy the "those who don't learn from history's mistakes are doomed to repeat it." And now that I'm older and wiser, I believe that 100%. If people who made policy would just run things by historians before they try them, the might find that their facile analysis doesn't stand up to reality. Anyway, my letter:

Dear Andrew,

Your suggestion that Germany and Japan are examples of people "peacefully creating an entirely different system of governance" is, unfortunately, simplistic.

Start with Germany: The Germans didn't create an entierly different system--they returned to an old one, though a different model. Remember that Germany had had democratic government in the past, in the form of the Weimar Republic. Even before that, arguably since the revolution of 1848, Germany had had some form of party-based government (albeit with strong army and Kaiser influence). Thus, the Germans weren't being given something with which they were unfamiliar. Further, German reconstruction was highly tempered by the experience of the war--long fought, massive shortages of food, and a gradual realization (particularly with the revelation of the Holocaust) that they had to change. Add to that the enormous external threat of soviet communism and the realization they had to pull together. Finally, it is worth noting that Germany was ethnically homogenous and that Protestants and Catholics stopped killing each other over religion sometime in the 1600s.

Likewise Japan. It's harder to suggest that they had as much experience as the Germans with democratic government, but it was not something with which they were entierly unfamiliar. Add to that what was replaced--Japan was ethnically and religiously homogenous, and they maintained the stabilizing figure of the Emperor.

In short, neither of these two states has any similarity to the situation in Iraq--a country with no civil society built up, no experience with democracy, and three ethnic/religious groups far more wedded to their ethnic/religious identity than their national identity. It is too simplistic to suggest anything more than a passing similarity to the situation of Germany and Japan in 1945.

Similarly with the Soviet Union. Sure, after the Soviet Union's collapse, Eastern Europe opened up, but bear in mind that a large part of that collapse was a result of the opening of the East German border to West Germany and the massive outflow of people to the West. The East realized it had to open up in order to avoid collapse and the full-scale hemmoraging of people to the West. Further, once the Soviet Union collapsed, all of the authoritarian regimes lost their principal economic and military backer, so of course they collapsed as well. Those states were satelites of the USSR, not equals allied with it of their own choice.

That isn't the case with Iraq--it is simply not the case that every state around Iraq is or was dependent on Iraq for any sort of economic support, nor are or were they client states in the way that the Eastern bloc was.


[Dean P]

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