March 7, 2005

Democracy in Africa and the Middle East

Democracy in Africa and the Middle East -- One major test of the popular theory that democracy will cure all in the Arab world is Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa was notoriously undemocratic from about 1965-1989, with almost no non-violent transfers of power. Then, in the wake of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Africa caught the democracy bug, with lots of semi-honest elections beginning in 1990-91. Not all of them stuck, but the continent is far more democratic today than 15 years ago.

So, how much better off is Africa?

Absolutely, it's worse off due to the spread of AIDS. Granted, the political system didn't have much impact, for good or bad, on that, but that put's the whole issue in perspective.

Relatively, Africa's economies are worse off compared to the rest of the human race on average, due to the rapid growth in authoritarian China and democratic India.

Still, it's likely that Africa is slightly better off for the spread of democracy than if it hadn't happened, although it's hard to cite examples where it's made all that much difference. Ghana, for example, has done better economically in the democratic era than in the dictatorial era, yet, amusingly enough, the same guy, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, a charismatic Bob Marley-Muhammad Ali-looking mulatto, came to power twice by coups and then twice by elections.

The best rule in Africa has probably been under the competent dictatorships in Eritrea and Uganda, but of course the odds of a competent dictatorship emerging under the coup system are very slight, so democracy has probably been a net plus overall. Occasionally, elections have been a clear negative, though, as in Zimbabwe where after 20 years of fairly sane rule, the threat of losing an election drove Robert Mugabe into nationally destructive demagoguery.

The best progress against AIDS has been made in Uganda, which is a mild dictatorship under Museveni. Perhaps the worst governmental performance against AIDS has been in democratic and relatively rich South Africa, where the new ANC spent years trying to ignore AIDS, because its leaders were embarrassed that after decades of striving for black rule, as soon as they'd gained power, they discovered that their people had been fornicating to death, which was not the image they wished to project to the world of the New South Africa. So, they treated AIDS for quite a few years as a racist libel rather than as a public health crisis.

In Rwanda and Burundi, the introduction of elections at the end of colonialism over four decades ago has proven to be a pointless catastrophe. The minority Tutsis now rule both countries through military might, just as they did before the Europeans came, but an awful lot of people got hacked to pieces in the interim.

Anyway, I could go on with anecdotal evidence for some time, but the bottom line appears to be that free elections have been a mixed blessing, although probably a positive one on the whole, but they've done little to solve Africa's fundamental problems, which are not particularly amenable to political solutions. Africa is still Africa.

For the U.S., the good news about Africa's problems is that they don't much spill over into the rest of the world. Africans don't tend to actively blame their troubles on the rest of the world, at least not to the extent that they want to go blow up big buildings in the richer part of the world.

So, if they start holding a lot of elections in the Middle East, will the Middle East still be the Middle East, or will it turn into Finland? Will it be more like Africa, where democracy hasn't made much difference economically, or like ... well, it's not that easy to identify a country where democracy by itself has done all that much for the place, but no doubt there are some, most likely in places like Poland.

In contrast to Africa's self-contained troubles, the Middle East's problems have tended to spill over in three ways: terrorism, the impact on the price of oil, and various American ethnic groups trying to get America to help their relatives in the Old Country.

While very few people in America care if the Ibo or the Hausa have the upper hand in West Africa, lots of influential people care about their equivalents in the Middle East. But why anybody else should care all that much is not clear.

The U.S. used to care a lot about the price of oil, but, judging from the current record-setting price, the Bush Administration seems to have lost interest in the subject.

So, that leaves terrorism, and its dreaded "root causes." The Bush Administration's current theory appears to be that a lack of elections is the root cause of Arab terrorism. That's possible, but it's certainly not obvious.

While it's often asserted, with some evidence, that democracy prevents aggressive war, it's obviously false to claim that democracy prevents terrorism, as Northern Ireland, Northern Spain, and Kashmir show. Holding elections doesn't solve the problem that some men will always feel that the only thing preventing them from winning elections they deserve to win are the current national boundaries. The IRA wants to eliminate the border in Ireland, while the ETA wants to create a new border between Spain and the Basque country, all in the interests of converting a minority into an election-winning majority. Osama bin Laden appears to believe that the elimination of all boundaries in the Muslim world would allow him to come to power as the new Caliph, and he might be right that he would win a plurality if an election were held among all the Arab-speakers in the world.

In reality, Arab terrorism appears to have a lot of causes, but since most of it is carried out against other Arabs, that's not the kind I particularly care about in the long run. The kind where Arabs blow up non-Arabs, such as, potentially, me, is the kind that gets on my nerves.

So, what's the root cause of that? My best guess is that it's Arab soreheadedness over their embarrassing backwardness as a civilization compared to the West, especially economically. Africans, despite all their problems, don't get homicidally angry at the rest of the world when they compare how messed up their countries are. Arabs, however, sometimes do.

Elections might help in two ways. The first is that they might actually assist Arabs in catching up economically and organizationally. Perhaps, although there aren't a lot of examples of that actually happening, other than some Eastern European countries like Poland. In general, evolution to democracy tends to follow economic advances, as in South Korea and Chile, rather than vice-versa.

The Arabs' problems don't seem to be particularly caused by bad ideologies of the Marxist kind that are relatively easy to change. Mostly they seem to be the result of civilizational problems with extremely deep roots. For example, the part of Northern Tunisia that once belonged to the Roman Empire has a fairly high standard of living, but south of the old Roman wall erected to keep out the barbarians, Tunisia is like Yemen.

And, for some Arab countries, oil encourages laziness among the public and overweening ambition among would-be owners of all that oil. Being the Prime Minister of .Iceland, say, isn't a particularly desirable job because the people have to create the wealth through their own hard work and they aren't that willing to give up all the much for you to feather your own nest. But in a mineral state like Iraq, owning the oil is a very desirable job since all that matters is whom the oil companies write the checks to.

The other positive possibility is that elections might prove to be a temporary distraction for Arabs. Throughout the 20th Century, the Arabs have gotten excited over a long series of fads -- nationalism, pan-Arabism, socialism, fundamentalism -- none of which have succeeded in keeping the Arabs from falling farther behind their hated rivals in Christendom. Perhaps democratism might occupy their hopes for a few years.

Then, again, all this democracy hoopla may be an extraordinarily expensive delusion that is distracting us from doing what it takes to secure our homeland against foreign terrorists who wouldn't be particularly hard to keep out if we made the effort.

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