Thursday, July 20, 2006

Do Democracies Have a Special External Moral Licence?

It is often assumed that democracies should be judged differently in their external actions than non-democracies, but I have yet to see an actual argument why that is so.

The Persian Wars don't help -- frankly, I don’t think "fear society" and "free society" is a useful division in antiquity (the Hebrew Scriptures seem pretty clear that the Persians were a lot better than the Greeks in respecting Jewish religious liberties), but what could be more of a "fear society" than Sparta? Sparta and Athens ally against the Persians basically out of the same motivation that the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and liberal Arabs have for cheering Hezbollah -- ethnic solidarity against a foreigner they perceive as bent on ruling over them.

Thucydides is pretty darn clear that Athens, however internally democratic, was brutal with its allies. The Melian Dialogue in Book 5 of the Peloponnesian War, however unlikely as a record of actual speeches, shows what Athens was capable of.

In more modern times, there have been plenty of peoples who are internally liberal, but brutal -- even genocidal -- to those they exploit. Belgium in the Congo, the British in Tasmania or Ireland, America in the Philippines.

It is a huge mistake to interpret a fundamentally ethnic conflict about land -- blood and soil -- as an ideological conflict about systems of government. Israel, sensibly enough, does not want to see a democracy in Jordan or Egypt. A more democratic Turkey has been a huge complication in its relations with its former close ally, as of course was the overthrow of the Shah. And I believe there was a relatively free election in the Occupied Territories recently -- does anyone remember what happened there?

Anyway, Lebanon is a democratic -- if disordered -- state. The IDF is flattening whole villages, destroying civilian infrastructure well outside territory controlled by Hezbollah, and basically treating the Lebanese population as a whole as enemies, as the reaction of traditionally pro-Israel Maronites shows.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, in the Occupied Territories, 55% of voters voted for parties other than Hamas. But you are probably right that Israel is not wild about seeing democracy in either Egypt or Jordan (or Syria).

However, I am puzzled by the references to Turkey and Iran. Perhaps I am ignorant, but how have relations between Turkey and Israel gotten worse as Turkey has become democratic? Turkey has been mostly democratic for some time (with several brief military interruptions along the way), and relations have not exactly gotten bad under the moderate Islamist government now ruling Turkey.

And Iran did not exactly become a democracy after the Shah.

But I really don't understand the claim that the Middle East faces "fundamentally ethnic conflict about land." If we are talking about Zionism vs. the emergent Palestinian nationalism that led to the creation of the PLO, I get it. But Hamas and Hezbollah are not ethnic movements. They are radical Islamist--and thereby religious--movements.

I am not sure what any of this has to do with the question of democracies and moral license.