Thursday, April 24, 2014

Things Even America Can't Do

In an episode of one of those super-soldier shows that aired in the wake of 9-11, one character asked about a particularly daunting mission: "Can we do that?" To which his boss said "Hell, this is America. We can do any damn thing we want." Well, it turns out we can't do any damn thing we want, and here are a couple of things the last half century have shown we can't do.

We Can't Win Against Insurgencies

Sure, we can defeat insurgencies. I'm not counting the Indian Wars, which was not even close. We did it in the Philippines in the early 1900's, and we didn't do too badly in the Banana Wars of a couple of decades later. But there were several reasons for this:
  • War was a lot cheaper. No tanks, helicopters, drones, missiles or air supremacy needed.
  • The forces involved were small and all volunteer.
  • Probably most important: the press was an unabashed cheerleading squad for American imperialism. Since the wars were low key, they didn't get a huge amount of coverage, and what they did get would be resoundingly pro-U.S. (Even so, rough tactics, like an early version of waterboarding in the Philippines, got serious negative coverage.)
The political will to win against insurgencies just doesn't exist in the U.S. The press got excited about the Gulf War in 1991 and has spent more than twenty-five years trying to live down its embarrassment. There's a large permanent population convinced the U.S. is in the wrong in any conflict. Any mishap that costs American or foreign innocent lives will be headline news, and the more precisely targeted weapons become, the more bitterly some people oppose them. Americans want quick victories like the 1991 Gulf War, and then bring the troops home. The insurgents are home, and defeating them means either killing so many that the remnant is too demoralized to fight, or converting them to our point of view.

This mind-set will someday come back to bite us big-time. We can write off Afghanistan and let it revert to a medieval tribal society. It's on the far side of the world and if we really need to do something there we can ring our installations with impregnable security, or just buy off the opposition. But sooner or later there will be an insurgency we simply cannot allow to win, for example a neo-Nazi campaign of assassination in the U.S. or Europe. In that event we will either have to give in to their demands, or spend the blood, time and treasure it takes to defeat them.

We Can't Conjure up Democracy

We're proud, and justly so, of the nation-building we accomplished after World War II, where we treated former enemies benignly and enabled them to become stable democracies. So why can't we do that everywhere?

Because we forget that both Germany and Japan had already been democratic in the 1920's, and both had been overthrown by fascist coups. In both countries there was a significant native population supportive of democracy, and once the fascist grip was broken, the pro-democratic forces could govern again. After the fall of the Soviet Union, some former Communist countries like Poland, then-Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, made an easy transition to democracy. Others, like former Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria, were far less successful. Among the former Soviet republics, only the Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, became functioning democracies. In some cases, nations can make the transition to democracy without having much of a democratic tradition, like Spain and Portugal after the deaths of their fascist dictators.

Maybe the first thing we need to do is ask what exactly we want from a democracy. We have no problem accepting Western Europe as democratic, even though its parliamentary systems are quite different from our own. So democracy doesn't necessarily mean all the trappings of the American system. Here are a few things that seem essential. Oh, by the way, there is no perfect democracy anywhere, so don't even waste your time on that point.
  • The Rule of Law: An organized system of rules and institutions that provides reasonably predictable results. If you write a contract or a will, you can be reasonably sure they will be enforced. If you're charged with a crime, there's a good faith effort to see if you actually did commit the crime, and the punishment is reasonably predictable and proportionate. You won't get life in prison for vandalizing a mailbox. 
  • Respect for Human Rights: Mostly these are protected by the rule of law, but not necessarily. Lots of countries have legal systems, which are principally used to violate human rights more efficiently. Respect for human rights includes freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and information, respect for private property and due process. 
  • Self-Correction There are mechanisms in place to report and fix problems and respond to popular discontent. 
  • Public Participation There are mechanisms for soliciting popular input and for permitting people who are so inclined to participate in government. The most common manifestation of this process is election of representatives in competitive elections.
History affords plenty of cases where wise but autocratic rulers achieved those goals. The problem with autocracy is you may have a Marcus Aurelius succeeded by a Commodus. Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you don't know what you're going to get. Of course, the Germans who democratically elected Hitler didn't know what they were going to get, either. But if Germany had remained democratic, he could have been ousted or at least neutralized.

But it took centuries for Europe to fumble its way to democracy. The Greeks had it for at most a few generations, and for only a small minority of the population. Rome had a heavily slanted version designed to preserve the privileges of the upper classes, before it finally collapsed into dictatorship. We know lots of ways for democracies to fail, but really don't know how to start them where they don't exist.

The Economist Democracy Index lists the U.S., Canada, much of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand as full democracies. The only non-European or European-descended countries on the list are Japan and South Korea. It appears that developing a democracy requires a long tradition of the rule of law and recognition of the rights of others. There probably is no reason China could not achieve full democracy if the Communist ruling elite could bring themselves to permit it. India is listed as a "flawed democracy," not very far behind Italy, and a substantial accomplishment for a nation of a billion people and a dozen official languages. But parts of the world ruled by tribalism, clan loyalties and "honor" culture will probably have to evolve their own approaches to democracy. That will take time and may lead to forms we might find very unfamiliar.

Regime Change

Creating democracy where none existed before is impossible, and even replacing a bad government can prove extremely tricky. The U.S. has been involved many times at various levels in "regime change," ranging from supplying actual military support to funding to mere encouragement and advice. The myriad coups in Latin America and elsewhere have often been "successful" in that the objectionable regime was ousted and a new one put in place without the country collapsing into anarchy or civil war or economic disaster. It is unfortunate, perhaps, that the coup in Iran that ousted Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 worked so well, because it gave a false impression of how easy the process was. But the coup "worked" because there was already a faction willing and capable of assuming power. Generally speaking, "successful" coups occur in countries where there is a technically competent faction capable of replacing the ousted government. 

When there isn't a viable alternative to the existing government, regime change merely results in chaos and generally makes things worse. In some cases the incoming government is more interested in self-enrichment than governing, like the revolving door coups in South Vietnam in the 1960's. In many cases, the incoming government is more interested in conferring privilege and power on some particular faction or ethnic group, or is incapable of preventing rival groups from attacking each other. In the worst case scenarios, typical of the aftermath of the "Arab spring" of 2011, the only factions capable of replacing the existing government are extremist movements seeking to impose dictatorships of their own.

As of mid-2016, Venezuela seems poised for violent overthrow. The doctrinaire Marxist government is unwilling to institute reforms that might undermine its power, the economy is in shambles, and enemies of the regime are legion. A classic Latin American coup seems imminent, and such coups generally replace one government with another one with enough ability to rule effectively, if not necessarily well. If anyone had told me in 1980 that there would come a day when Colombia was safer and more stable than Venezuela, I'd have said they were crazy.

In Zimbabwe, the decrepit regime of Robert Mugabe has created world record inflation. Zimbabwean hundred-trillion dollar notes are worth more as collectors' items than as currency. Nevertheless, the nonagenarian Mugabe has stated he will not step down to spite his enemies who are hoping for regime change. Biology will soon take care of that problem, and had Mugabe's foreign enemies really wanted to oust him, he would be long gone already. But after Mugabe goes, then what? He may be replaced by followers who seek to perpetuate his policies. But he may also leave a vacuum with claimants scrambling for power, and his rule has lasted long enough that there may no longer be any faction in Zimbabwe capable of running the country effectively. 

The problem is vastly worse in North Korea, ruled by a lunatic with nuclear weapons, where any possible rivals have long since fled or been exterminated. The very best anyone can hope for in North Korea is a coup where a somewhat more rational dictatorship is installed. If anyone is capable of engineering a regime change in North Korea, it would be China, and maybe if the North Korean government does something to endanger China, they might feel the need to do it.

One thing that U.S. experience in the Middle East since 2001 has made all too clear is that even regime change, let alone creation of a democracy, is bound to fail unless there is someone waiting in the wings to provide a stable government capable of keeping rival groups placated and confident of their rights being protected.