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EXPORTING DEMOCRACY, OR A FAVORABLE CLIMATE OF INVESTMENT?


Edward S. Herman

The

great nineteenth century U.S. agnostic and lecturer, Robert Green Ingersoll,

used to delight in telling the story of the test of true faith imposed on those

seeking entry into heaven by the heavenly gatekeeper (e.g., in his lecture on

the "Mistakes of Moses"). The applicant would be asked–"did you

believe the Adam and Eve rib story in the Bible?" The honest and virtuous

man, who said, "To tell you the God’s truth, that was more than I could

swallow," was denied admission. The scoundrel, who acknowledged numerous

real sins, was not only pleased to believe the rib story, he said "I often

used to be sorry that there were not harder stories yet in the Bible, so that I

could show what my faith could do." The gatekeeper said, "Give him a

harp."

Usually

reliable sources tell me that the New York Times has an eerily similar admission

test that prospective reporters and pundits must pass as a condition of

employment. They are asked: "do you believe that the United States is

trying to export democracy to countries abroad that lack it?" Saying yes is

reportedly a job imperative. These same reliable sources say that one foolhardy

fellow, trying to impress his interviewers, did note that the United States has

had a sorry record of supporting authoritarians in the past, but he

"hoped" that this country had learned some lessons and that with the

Soviet enemy gone we had changed course. He was ushered out of the building even

before lunch.

Job

counselers advise Times interviewees to play it safe, and not even admit a

regrettable past record and recent definitive change of course. The best

strategy, they say, in line with the statement of the heavenly believer who

wanted a greater test of his faith, is to claim that this country has been

making serious sacrifices contrary to its national interest in its pursuit of

democracy abroad. It can be acknowledged that we have on occasion erred in this

quest, and occasionally allowed Cold War demands and commercial interests to

cause us to make short-run compromises, but it should be emphasized that

devotion to and sacrifices on behalf of democracy have been primary themes of

U.S. foreign policy. 

Providing

this background was inspired by a Times Editorial Observer piece by Tina

Rosenberg on "America Finds Democracy a Difficult Export" (Oct. 25,

1999). Rosenberg is a recent addition to the paper’s editorial board, and it is

quickly apparent why she passed the entry test. She takes it as a given that the

United States is interested in cultivating democracy abroad, and she says that

any failures in this effort are a result of "mistakes" based on

"hubris and the tendency to confuse surface reforms with deep-seated

change." There is a persistent tendency "to emphasize form over

substance."

But

if the mistakes are frequent and form is persistently emphasized over substance,

this should suggest to an objective analyst that a search for purpose in the

confusion is very much in order. For example, the theory of "demonstration

elections" is built on the idea that elections without substance can serve

a public relations purpose; and that in cases like Vietnam in 1966-67, the

Dominican Republic in 1966, El Salvador in 1982 and 1984, and Russia in 1996,

such elections can provide support in the United States and elsewhere for

continuing aid to regimes of terror or corruption. Tina Rosenberg never mentions

such a possibility.

Rosenberg

cites a forthcoming book by Thomas Carothers on Aiding Democracy Abroad, which

says in effect that democracy promotion can’t affect "the underlying

conditions of a country that really determine its democratic

progress–concentrations of power and wealth, political traditions, the

expectations of its citizens." A non-apologist at this point would have had

to acknowledge that the United States has actively supported counter-revolutions

precisely designed to protect extreme concentrations of wealth–opposing

"nationalist regimes" unduly concerned with "immediate

improvement in the low living standards of the masses" in the formulation

of an NSC statement of U.S. objectives in Latin America (which has never yet

been quoted in the New York Times). Obviously you can’t "promote

democracy" while helping put in power a global system of authoritarian

governments like Marcos’s, Mobutu’s, Suharto’s, the Arab sheiks’, and numerous

military governments in Latin America (among others). Here again is where you

need the claim of "mistakes" and an alleged mistaken focus on

superficialities to cover over the fact of a systematic and basic policy hostile

to democracy.

In

fact, the mainstream media have long served the "national interest" in

the numerous awkward cases where their government has backed military and terror

regimes by simply taking at face value official expressions of concern over

client state violence, and accepting phony demonstration elections as

"encouraging," while ignoring their country’s persistent and

undeviating support for the institutional arrangements and governments that

yield the terror. This structure of apologetics was conspicuously evident in the

media’s reporting and editorializing on El Salvador throughout the 1980s.

Tina

Rosenberg writes in this great tradition, never once mentioning positive U.S.

support even today for Saudi Arabia, or its durable support of Suharto. She says

that in the new realism of democracy promotion "where governments resist

reform" U.S. consultants "now try to strengthen democratic forces by

boosting grass-roots groups, local governments and women’s organizations."

Yes, this is what they are doing in Yugoslavia, but are they doing it in Saudi

Arabia where we maintain armed forces to protect the regime and where the

government would be extremely resentful of such intervention?

A

good case can be made, based on solid historical evidence, that more often than

not the United States has been "exporting autocracy" in its own

backyard and elsewhere over the past century. But the autocracies and limited

democracies that it has supported have all shared a common characteristic in

their ability to provide an "open door" to U.S. business and to fend

off the threats of socialism and populism. Clinton often refers to our pursuit

of "market-based democracies," but he was quite happy with Suharto’s

"market-based autocracy" until Suharto lost viability.

Suharto’s

and the Saudi’s autocracies are truly "market-based" because the oil

and other transnationals have loved them, given them support, and made sure that

their home governments and the IMF and World Bank assist them as well–that is,

their coming into being and the survival of these autocracies have depended on

the backing of the global institutions of the market. We can reasonably

conclude, therefore, that what the United States is exporting is a favorable

climate of investment, not democracy, and certainly not a substantive democracy,

which would, in fact, threaten the investment climate. Tina Rosenberg never

comes close to considering whether the desire for a favorable climate of

investment could influence the U.S. thirst for democracies abroad.

It

is another long-standing classic of U.S. disinformation to claim that U.S.

military aid and training will help democratize countries so served. In reality,

there is massive evidence that U.S.-trained foreign police and military

personnel are extra prone to torture and have been disproportiontely involved in

overthrowing democratic rule and establishing regimes of terror. Tina Rosenberg

continues in the disinformation tradition, with refinements. She says "Some

in the Pentagon still believe that foreign officers will become less abusive if

they rub elbows with the American citizen soldier," and that exhausts her

treatment of the matter. Note that she takes at face value the claims of belief

in this democratizing effect; but more important, she fails to discuss the

record of anti-democratic effects, and its functionality in terms of U.S.

interests in a favorable climate of investment and preserving structures of

inequality against the nationalists who want to "immediately improve"

living standards of the poor. She makes it appear that the fallacy in the

"rubbing elbows" theory lies in the ineducability of those foreign

soldiers.

Tina

Rosenberg ends assuring readers that "building democracy in many developing

nations is both crucial to American interests and resistant to instant

solutions." So supporting Suharto for 33 years was a mistake carried out

contrary to American interests, and exporting democracy to Saudi Arabia is

moving slowly because there are no instant solutions–as there were in Kosovo

where the alleged horror of ethnic cleansing demanded quick and vigorous action.

Give Tina a harp.