Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Compost: Diplomacy In The Dark

Once in awhile, a Reason Magazine piece will hit just the right spot. This one, "The Unknown War", is a great column about the swell of democratic reform brought on by the fermenting Eastern European revolutions and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Given the current global threat - Fundamentalist Islamic terrorism - the article concludes with a prescient statement for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq:

Ironically, the one consistent lesson U.S. officials claim to have learned about the Cold War is the one that has the least applicability outside the East Bloc: that aggressive and even violent confrontation with evil regimes will lead to various springtimes for democracy. It is telling that the victors of an epic economic and spiritual struggle take away conclusions that are primarily military. Telling, and tragic.

There are a couple of ways to take the statement that the US's key lesson from the Cold War is tragic. The author could mean that force (war) played no role in bringing down Communist Dictatorships around the world. Or, the author could mean that the key lesson from 1989 is twofold: 1) projecting force (through war if necessary) is a key element to defeating an ideology run by a few that controls many; 2) when facing an ideology that controls nation-states and people, force must be coupled with an alternative.

The latter is likely what is intended by the lamentation. It's also pretty much, when applied to Afghanistan, what the last 20 minutes of Charlie Wilson's War is about. Afghanistan, of course, is the reason why 1989 deserves so much remembrance.

It's hard to separate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution from the arms race and economic competition between the US and USSR that preceded them. However, it's possible to imagine the economic competition alone leading to the crumbling of Communist governments. Communism is a deeply flawed style of social governance and economic rule. It did not always exist in Eastern Europe and other areas from which it disappeared in the late 80s. People had previously been accustomed to, and certainly were aware of, in neighboring countries, a level of economic freedom (Economic freedom is inextricably linked to social freedom.). During the 1980s, people in these countries - the older through prior experience, the younger through observation of the free world - had tastes of economic freedom that fueled a greater desire for liberty and opportunity.

Nevertheless, it's difficult to imagine Communist Dictatorships falling solely through the desire for economic liberty. Communist governments had resisted reform for over 50 years, even in the face of mass starvation and the need for coercion through brutal treatment to maintain legitimacy among the people. While the people were increasingly aware of personal liberty outside of their borders, and were increasingly desirous of it, Communist governments could not keep pace with the US in the development of preventative and offensive weapons. If, in the worst scenario, the Cold War turned hot, the US was in a position to destroy the USSR.

This concerns Afghanistan in the sense that the people there, unlike Eastern Europeans, are largely unaware of the freedom alternative. The people that control them (Taliban, Al Qaeda, others) more tightly control peoples' lives than Communist regimes. They are at least as equally brutal and willing to use force against people to force cooperation or submission, if not more.

However, it is fair to assume that Afghanis will be responsive to the idea of personal liberty if it is offered in a way that they can comprehend the concept (not to say that they are unintelligent, just that personal liberty has to be introduced in ways that are not incompatible with the culture). The idea that personal liberty is appealing and natural to all humans is the premise of the US Constitution. Would the Constitution work in Afghanistan? No. But would a movement premised on personal liberty be appealing? It should, if introduced properly. Obviously, religious and other social freedoms are unlikely to take root.

On the other hand, economic freedom is a way of introducing a repressed country to the modern world. And economic freedom - working for yourself and your family, and keeping what you earn - is a concept easily grasped. Where economic freedoms have been introduced - USSR, China, SE Asia - social freedoms have followed.

In order for these to take hold, however, force is absolutely necessary. Force is necessary to remove the people - nationally and locally - who will prevent an appealing alternative to their brutal repression from being introduced. And force is necessary to keep those who wish to destroy the alternative - freedom - from preventing it from taking root in individuals and the culture at large.


People often mock the slogan, "Peace through strength." They take it as a euphemism for bombing people into submission, and then implementing US-style democracy. The reality is, however, that the great lesson of 1989 referred to in the Reason piece is that economic/social liberty has to be a major component, alongside of force for fighting a repressive ideology.

The slogan, as viewed by a conservative, reads "Peace through strength of force and strength of ideas." Some form of elected government follows. What was learned in Iraq, what maybe people already knew, was that a new government that promotes freedom has to be tailored to the local culture. Small social or economic reforms can follow, the initial type depending on the history of the country. Gradually, you hope for a somewhat functioning government, but there are no guarantees. In the most repressive regimes - and especially in those which export their destruction in the form of terrorism - force must precede these steps.

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