The Havoc Freedom Wrought – By David de Bruijn

Opinion: David de Bruijn proposes a reconsideration of authoritarianism

Selim III receiving dignitaries at an audience at the Gate of Felicity, Topkapı Palace. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

They that are discontented under monarchy call it tyranny […] they which find themselves grieved under a democracy call it anarchy.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan Chapter 19

The LORD answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.” Then Samuel said to the Israelites, “Everyone go back to your own town.”
1 Samuel 8:22

Looking at the Middle East today is much like standing atop one of the few remaining structures in a bombed-out city. To our left we can see the charcoaled spires of Egypt, where the population itself seems en masse to have suffered buyer’s remorse concerning the idea of electoral democracy, and where the integration of Islamist forces into a democratic system is now very much in doubt. Beyond Egypt lie liberated Libya, where chaos reigns, and Tunisia, where moderate Islamists have a most precarious hold on power. On the right we observe the smoldering ruins of Syria, and beyond them Iraq, where authoritarianism and sectarian violence have returned in full force. Even the protests that began in and have since spread out from Istanbul can be seen in light of the difficulties Turkish leaders face trying to combine the rule of the majority with the values and preferences of urban elites.

So now is a good time to reflect on the fundamental ideas that have guided recent years of Western foreign policy making in the Middle East. Clearly there is a lot of sympathy to be had with any democratic groundswell in the region. Still, we should ask: might there have been an overly Jacobin tone to our anti-authoritarian cheerleading?

Much blame for the havoc in the Middle East has been laid at the doorstep of the so-called neoconservative Freedom Agenda, which dominated American policy in the early years after 9/11. A paradigmatic expression of this Agenda was the book The Case for Democracy – co-written by Russian dissident and more recently Israeli government minister Nathan Sharansky, and incoming Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer. Sharansky and Dermer argued that Middle Eastern terrorism stems fundamentally from a lack of democracy. After all, Middle Eastern dictators have traditionally made a (successful) policy out of deflecting domestic criticism onto Western targets, and the pent-up aggression of Arab domestic oppression is what we consequently experience as terrorism. The Agenda’s conclusion is thus simple: reform the domestic politics of the Middle East by transforming them into democracies, and terrorism will cease.

The Freedom Agenda is now widely recognized as a disaster. It produced two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the Agenda’s simplistic emphasis on democracy proved insensitive to the political inertia and sectarian realities of the nations in question. It was also a poor geostrategy: America’s image suffered globally as its crude binary classifications of nations into “free” and “non-free” failed to leave sufficient room for the nuance of which diplomacy is made. The net result empowered Iran with prime opportunities for meddling on both its Eastern and Western borders.

Much has since been made of Obama’s – and so America’s – disavowal of the Freedom Agenda.  On this view of his presidency, Obama plays the role of prudent student of history, whose single flaw may be at times to take his caution to neo-isolationist excess. But there is much to dispute in this narrative. True, Obama’s “neo-realist” agenda has not favored the large-scale nation-building efforts of Bush, and Obama has typically been careful to steep his policies in multi-lateral language. But this is a tactical difference, not a strategic one. In truth, the Western paradigm hasn’t really changed: oppression is the problem, freedom the solution. As Obama’s young foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes expressed the idea at the time of the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprisings: “the President was very adamant from the beginning of these protests that we see them as opportunities, not as crises. That, for all the challenges to stability in the region, and there are many, and all the important relationships to the US, that when people are standing up for their universal rights […] the currents of history are very much moving into the right direction in that part of the world.”

So if something like the Freedom Agenda is the rough consensus across the Western political spectrum, what is its alternative?

In critiquing Western efforts to democratize the Middle East, much emphasis has traditionally been placed on the need for careful consideration of local political, religious, and cultural conditions. We’ve been admonished not to think that democracies can sprout over night like mushrooms. Clearly such expert knowledge is a critical element of a sound foreign policy. But I want to suggest that we look deeper still, questioning our very attitude towards democracy and, specifically, its historic alternative, authoritarianism. Not because democracy is not an important ideal, but because, by our culture and history, we have been blinded completely to understanding what authoritarian forms of government are like – their raison d’etre and, yes, their virtues.

I want to buttress this reflection on authoritarian government with two considerations: one from Western political thought, the other from Middle Eastern history. To be sure, independently these considerations hardly rise above the level of generalities; consider them, if you will, mere artifices intended for the sake of argument. Taken together, however, they shed important light on the Western preoccupation with democracy, and its effects in the Middle East.

One prominent modern conception of politics, which we owe to Rousseau, takes it as a political system’s prime virtue to preserve freedom through self-government – a system “in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.” Of course there is much to be contemplated about what exactly self-government is for Rousseau. But it seems safe to say that Rousseau’s vision, later perfected by Kant, set the program for centuries of liberal political development, culminating in modern Western democracies, and should indisputably be recognized as profound an ethical and political insight as there ever was.

But Rousseau had a historic contender in Thomas Hobbes. While Rousseau dedicated his works to the enlightened gentry of the Genevan Republic, Hobbes wrote his central works as a royalist defending the legitimacy of Charles I during the English Civil War. Influenced by these historic conditions of civil strife, Hobbes conceived of freedom not as a chief condition of virtuous politics, but as its greatest threat. For Hobbes, the primary point of a political system is to overcome man’s natural state, governed only by his own fear and aggression, which Hobbes infamously captures as an interminable “war of all against all.” From a Hobbesian view, authoritarian government is not a problem: it is the solution to the far worse evil of anarchism.

Considering events in today’s Middle East, it captures my thesis to say that we should re-learn the lessons of Hobbes. Specifically, we should ask: what link can we observe between the “freedom” that Hobbes fears and the chaos and violence engulfing the Middle East today? Here we will encounter the pivotal virtue of an authoritarian government: it limits the size of the political sphere.

As Walter Russell Mead has pointed out, we can helpfully think of the events of the “Arab Spring” as simultaneously embodying Europe’s Thirty Years War and the French Revolution: the Thirty Years War for the Spring’s regional character and the intensity with which it pits religiously inspired groups against one another; the French Revolution for its anti-authoritarian character and the promises it would seem to hold for freedom and democracy.

In Mead’s analysis, these historical analogies serve as a partial exculpation of Obama’s stumbling policies in the Middle East. After all, the Thirty Years War and the French Revolution are rolled up in a single process: one doesn’t have to deal with that every day! But in fact there is significantly less reason to cut Obama some slack in this way. For there is a predictable link between the embodiment of democratic aspirations in the Arab Spring and the sectarian massacre it has partially become since.

Recall that most of the Arab Spring is taking place in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire. To be sure, throughout their history the Ottomans ruled diverse territories in diverse ways; it is difficult to distill any general features. Yet there are some aspects of current events in the Middle East on which the Ottoman past may shed light.

One is some of the ethnic fragmentation of the Middle East. As the Habsburgs elsewhere, imperial powers like the Ottomans traditionally favored creating multi-ethnic territories, both in order to avoid any ethnic separatism, and to provide the regime with a way politically to pivot various parties against each other in a specific territory. It is no coincidence that throughout the former Ottoman Empire, whether in the Middle East or the Balkans, the states we see today tend to be ethnically diverse and have consequently had significant problems accommodating the nation state. Nor, indeed, is it a coincidence that many post-Ottoman states have had an avowedly secular authoritarian bent or were even led by a small minority that depends on a unified state for survival, as is the case in Syria. Only by staunchly denying ethnic majoritarianism in favor of the trans-ethnic national character could these post-Ottoman states keep at bay the highly flammable cauldron of sectarian strife.

The fundamental premise here is that ethnicity carries reduced political relevance in an imperial condition compared to the way ethnicity matters in a nation state, much less a democracy. In the time of empire, it didn’t really matter if, say in Syria, you inhabited a Shi’ite area in a predominantly Sunni territory. You were not going to have political sovereignty anyway, and neither were your Sunni neighbors. It is this factor that the Arab Spring has radically changed in the Middle East today. With the suggested advent of democracy, suddenly populations around the Middle East have realized the paramount relevance of ethnicity in their ancestral territories. How many Sunnis are there? How many Shi’ites? Who will be enfranchised should elections be held? Who will face political subjugation?

Accordingly, our efforts to promote democratic aspirations in the Middle East are directly linked to the sectarian strife we have seen since. Indeed, the problem in our advocacy of democracy transcends the role of sectarianism in democratic transitions: it is the more general problem of enlarging the realm of the political, of which sectarianism is but one expression.

To appreciate the more general problem of “enlarging the realm of the political” we should contemplate that – though of course there are significant exceptions – in authoritarian societies power struggles are often affairs that hardly spread beyond a small cabal: a group of officers taking power, a younger brother seizing a throne. Meanwhile, much of society may well live a thoroughly local life defined almost entirely by the proximate environment: the market in the next village, the cattle-stealing thugs from the town on the next hill, the corrupt local patrician family imposing extortionary tax rates. Of course there is a ruler (in the Ottoman case, a Sultan) far away somewhere, and if one has a real grievance about a neighbor, one might be able to petition his intervention. But political sovereignty can be a distant and abstract thought, irrelevant to the concerns of locals.

In these authoritarian conditions an absolute ruler often served as an ally rather than a foe of the population, establishing relative law and order and chastising any local potentates or tribal overlords overstepping the norms of good governance.  This salubrious check on local powers may explain why, for most of history, monarchies have been the dominant form of political organization, as well as a clue to why monarchies have thus far survived in the Middle East. For the contemporary Middle East, Jeffrey Goldberg’s portrait of King Abdullah’s role in Jordan provides an outstanding illustration of this feature of monarchy.

In a broader sense, then, nationalizing, and especially democratizing, a political entity can convert otherwise small power struggles into mass affairs, whether sectarian in nature or not. Suddenly, average citizens see the concepts of sovereignty and power transformed from distant dreams at best to matters urgently important to their future, requiring them en masse to take up some political stance. For example, Egypt is a society with fewer ethnic divisions than Syria. But while arguably less explosive, the plight of Egypt remains similar; having freed political competition from the monopolistic hands of the authoritarian, this struggle now comes to rest on the doorsteps of every individual citizen, leading her to seek stability in collective political identification. Such mass political identifications are the stuff of which mass political strife (and as a consequence, mass suffering) is made.

The benefits of a limited political sphere bring us back to Hobbes. The central concern of Hobbes’ Leviathan is that  “freedom” is our own worst enemy. Taking perhaps some liberty with the strict interpretation of Hobbes himself, we may gloss this “freedom” as “political freedom”: access, in one way or another, to the realms of power. Transforming political power into a concern of the masses opens up the risk of the sort of all-out political strife that we see occurring today throughout the Arab World. As a consequence, the West should perhaps have long contemplated Hobbes’ lesson, taking a more skeptical stance on the Arab Spring from its beginnings. Not for a lack of sympathy, but from a better understanding of what keeps authoritarian governments in place. Not all authoritarian regimes are akin to those of Hitler or Stalin, which serve as our own historical paradigms. Sometimes it may be worth weighing Rousseau’s promise of true political freedom against the depoliticized stability and relative freedom from suffering that is the more modest Hobbesian aspiration.

For a different view, see the interview with Karima Bennoune on Human Rights, Religion, and Democracy in the Arab Spring.