The Problem with Democratization as a Strategy

By Sinnreich, Richard Hart | Army, September 2004 | Go to article overview

The Problem with Democratization as a Strategy


Sinnreich, Richard Hart, Army


Here's a question for military history buffs: How many insurgencies in the last century or so have successfully replaced established authoritarian governments with true democracies?

There certainly have been successful revolutions, from the Russian Revolution in 1917 to the political upheavals in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. But the former produced a Soviet tyranny scarcely less oppressive than its predecessor and the latter couldn't have happened without its implosion.

In contrast, it's all too easy to recall insurgencies from Algeria to Indochina that have replaced democratic governments, or at least governments making an effort to be democratic, with autocracies. So how is it that despots from Stalin to Saddam Hussein managed for decades to evade or defeat internal upheaval?

The question isn't just academic. The presumption of America's efforts to build democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq and bolster threatened democracies from the Balkans to the Philippines is that democracy is inherently more attractive than tyranny and ultimately more effective in producing both political legitimacy and military tranquility.

Recent attempts to replace authoritarian with democratic regimes at least challenge that presumption. In Yugoslavia, removal of Tito's heavy hand ultimately unleashed internecine strife that persists to this day, suppressed only by the presence of NATO troops. In Afghanistan, the establishment of democracy continues to be resisted not only by tribal warlords, but also by Taliban insurgents who have yet to acknowledge defeat.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, ordinary citizens who wouldn't have considered for a moment braving death to depose Saddam Hussein risk it daily to defeat coalition efforts to rebuild and democratize Iraqi society. Why?

One possible explanation is that, for many, any home-grown regime, however despotic, is preferable to governance, however benign, imposed or sustained from outside. That's the more likely, presumably, when the society's underlying political culture reflects ethnic, tribal or religious arrangements that western-style democracy threatens to upset rather than preserve.

Another possibility is that the military constraints self-imposed by modern western societies inherently hinder them in defeating internal resistance. As the most recent example, we need only contrast the uproar over revelations of localized prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib with the comparative indifference that has greeted evidence of Saddam's infinitely more pervasive and systematic persecutions.

Similarly, not many authoritarian regimes confronted with internal rebellion or insurgency in a client state have wasted a lot of time worrying about the civil costs associated with defeating it. …

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