Tag: democracy

Democracy EXPOSED!

I found a release put out by the American Legislative Exchange Council today a little too meek. So let’s talk about the debate around ALEC, a group I’ve been involved with as a volunteer advisor since before I joined Cato. (The Communications and Technology Task Force used to be called “Telecommunications and Information Technology,” but that didn’t work well in our acronym-happy world.) ALEC is under seige because of alleged ties between its backing of “Stand Your Ground” laws and the Trayvon Martin case, in which a young black man was killed by a neighborhood watch officer of…uncertain ethnic background.

Tim Lynch and Walter Olson have made us aware that the Martin tragedy does not actually implicate Stand Your Ground. Tim has also made us aware of a case in which Stand Your Ground is implicated, that of an elderly Detroit man who shot and killed an 18-year-old entering his home armed with a handgun at 1:30 a.m.

There’s no question, as Tim said, that Zimmerman’s taking of Trayvon Martin’s life warrants intense scrutiny. (The very latest: Prosecutors intend to charge Zimmerman.) While that plays out, Cato will address self-defense law and gun rights at an event entitled “’Stand Your Ground’ Laws: Self-Defense or License to Kill?” on April 23rd, which I encourage you to attend or watch.

But ALEC is an odd target for scrutiny of the quality it’s getting. ALEC describes itself as dedicated to “the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty.” Toward this end it “enlist[s] state legislators from all parties and members of the private sector who share ALEC’s mission.”

Anti-ALEC site ALECExposed.org characterizes things differently:

Through the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, global corporations and state politicians vote behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that govern your rights. These so-called “model bills” reach into almost every area of American life and often directly benefit huge corporations. In ALEC’s own words, corporations have “a VOICE and a VOTE” on specific changes to the law that are then proposed in your state. DO YOU?

It’s very exciting stuff—the idea that people would organize themselves to affect the public policies of their states and nation.

The latter characterization of ALEC doesn’t square very well with the Trayvon Martin case, though. The ALECExposed site itself emphasizes that the National Rifle Association works through ALEC to promote and defend Stand Your Ground and other gun rights and self-defense laws. The NRA is a corporation, yes, but it’s an issue advocacy organization. It’s no more the huge or global corporation ALECExposed aims at than the Center for Media and Democracy, hosts of ALECExposed.

The point is made, though: Corporations are trying to influence our public policy! And they are working closely with state legislators to do it!

The horror.

I’ve looked, and there is no NCSLExposed.org. (Domain available!) The National Conference of State Legislatures is a similar group to ALEC: larger, center-left, and government-funded. In 2010, $10 million of NCSL’s $16.8 million general fund came from state legislatures. Most of the remainder comes from grants from federal agencies such as the federal Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Energy, and Transportation, and from private foundations.

Here, let me re-phrase that:

Through the government-funded National Conference of State Legislatures, governments and foundations try to rewrite state laws that govern your rights. Their efforts reach into almost every area of American life and often directly benefit huge governments and corporations. In NCSL’s own words, it is an advocate for the interests of state governments before Congress and federal agencies. IS IT AN ADVOCATE FOR YOU?

I’ve done my best to make NCSL sound malign, though it’s not. Neither is ALEC malign. I agree with some of what both organizations do, and I disagree with some of what both organizations do.

And I suppose that reveals the trouble with the trouble with ALEC. It is a highly selective attack on one organization that has the peculiar quality of advancing the aims of the business sector, of libertarians, and conservatives. A larger organization that advances the aims of the government sector enjoys no attention in current debate. The hundreds of other organizations that advance the aims of various other sectors—unions, for example—not a peep. Even though RIGHT NOW unions are trying to influence public policy in ways they believe will help workers!

The First Amendment’s protections for freedom of speech, association, and petition of the government have in their background a vision for how our political society should work. Anybody should get to say anything they want, and anybody should organize however they want to advocate for the governing policies they want.

The opponents of ALEC’s positions should advocate the substantive polices they prefer, and they are certainly within their rights to do it in whatever way they prefer. Politics never runs out of ways to disappoint, though, and as a person who tries to deal with the substance of issues, working across partisan and ideological lines, I am amazed at and disappointed by the incoherence of the attack on ALEC.

And I am also disturbed by its anti-democratic and anti-speech quality. The implication I take from the attack on ALEC is that some groups, representing some interests, should not be able to participate in making our nation’s and states’ public policies.

There is one ray of light in all this: NCSL is featuring its concerns with REAL ID, the national ID law, on its homepage. And ALECExposed has a posted a buffoonishly marked-up version of ALEC’s 2007 resolution against REAL ID. NCSL would evidently back the implementation of a national ID if Congress were to fund it. Given its principles, ALEC would not.

Even this debate may help inform the public.

Chávez’s Electoral Fraud Cushion

The onslaught against Henrique Capriles Radonsky by Venezuelan state-run media has begun after his decisive victory in Sunday’s presidential primary. Capriles is now the nominee of the opposition coalition and he will face Hugo Chávez in October’s presidential election. As the Wall Street Journal reports, the vicious attacks against Capriles include, among other things, insinuations that he was a homosexual and that he is a Zionist agent.

This election will not be a fair one. Not only does Chávez control most of the Venezuelan media, but his government is also dramatically increasing spending on popular social programs. About 8.5 million Venezuelans already receive some kind of permanent income or assistance from the government (4 million of them are public employees). The Chávez regime threatens and intimidates those who receive government handouts and dare to support the opposition. Moreover, since voting is electronic in Venezuela, many people fear—perhaps with good reason—that their votes aren’t secret. The government tacitly encourages these perceptions.

But that’s not the end of the story. Chávez also controls Venezuela’s National Electoral Council. Due to the inability of the opposition to monitor every voting station in the country, the stated results of the vote may not be accurate. The Electoral Council usually takes longer than is necessary to tabulate voting results from electronic systems, which has raised concerns of fraudulent activity.

A main concern is the electoral registry, as documented by Gustavo Coronel in a Cato study back in 2006. Coronel wrote that an independent analysis of the electoral registry found many irregularities:

such as the existence of 39,000 voters over one hundred years old. This is a number equal to that of the same age group in the United States, where the population is 10 times greater. Of these 39,000 people, 17,000 were born in the 19th century, and one is 175 years old and still working! Nineteen thousand voters were born the same day and year in the state of Zulia. There are thousands of people sharing the same address.

So on top of the support of his followers (some enthusiastic, others intimidated), which fluctuates around 45 percent of the population, Chávez can also rely on a margin of error due to electoral fraud if he doesn’t get enough votes for his reelection. I’ve talked to some Venezuelans who say this margin can be as high as eight percentage points. That is, if the election is decided by less than that (very likely the case), Chávez can doctor the results in his favor.

The opposition promises to have people in every single voting station in the country watching the vote. The National Electoral Council will probably bar international observers from monitoring the election. This sets up the potential for conflicting results from the opposition and the National Electoral council. What would happen next is anyone’s guess.

Egypt’s Arab Spring, One Year Later

As many expected, Islamist parties will form a dominant majority in Egypt’s first freely elected parliament. The Islamists are here to stay and fear-mongering over their rise is unproductive, since Egyptians will judge for themselves whether Islamists are delivering on their promises. Moreover, understanding the dynamics that brought religious parties to power should be the real goal, and will ultimately prove more useful to those engaging this nascent democracy.

The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of Egypt’s underground religious fraternity, the Muslim Brotherhood, won almost half the seats in parliament. The al-Nour Party and the Islamist Alliance, a coalition of puritanical Salafist parties more conservative than the Brotherhood, came in second with 25 percent of the vote. Combined, Islamists have taken about two-thirds of the seats in the new assembly. If placed on a generic right-left political spectrum, Salafis and other arch-conservatives would be on the far right, socialists and non-Islamists would be on the far left, and the liberal and moderate nationalist parties like al-Wafd would fall somewhere in the middle alongside the right-of-center Muslim Brotherhood. The movement advocates the system of a ceremonial president overseeing foreign policy and a prime minister in control of domestic affairs. It decided not to field a candidate for the presidency.

Egyptians in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular prefer stability and economic growth to waging jihad. On the one hand the Brotherhood vows to never recognize Israel, on the other its deputy chairman recently claimed, “We have announced clearly that we as Egyptians will abide by the commitments made by the Egyptian government…They are all linked to institutions and not individuals.” On war, renowned French social scientist Olivier Roy explains that Egypt’s religious parties are constrained by democratic mechanisms that hold the people’s legitimacy:

The “Islamic” electorate in Egypt today is not revolutionary; it is conservative. It wants order. It wants leaders who will kick-start the economy and affirm conventional religious values, but it is not ready for the great adventure of a caliphate or an Islamic republic. And the Muslim Brotherhood knows this.

Elements of the 1978 Camp David Accords are in dispute, but such changes will not lead ineluctably to war. The more interesting questions about the rise of Egypt’s Islamists lie in the domestic arena: Will the Brotherhood make good pluralists? Will religious liberty be deemed apostasy or an individual human right? Will a body of Islamic scholars be established to arbitrate Sharia law? Part of the problem is that the Brotherhood members talk a good game about the principles of “liberty and equalityand economic freedom, but they are also smooth political operators. They have repeatedly down-played their popularity to avoid frightening Egypt’s liberals and foreign observers. In fact, knowing that Turkey—not Iran—is the republican system that many in Egypt want to emulate, the Brotherhood ran a campaign claiming that their party was the Turkish model. It’s not. Al-Wasat, a Turkish-style Brotherhood-offshoot, is “the most moderate on the Islamist spectrum,” observes my friend and former colleague Omar Hossino, who studies Egypt and hails from Syria.  Al-Wasat got 2% (9 seats) of the vote.

So, what’s next?

Despite the gathering clouds of conservatism, shifting alliances within Egypt will broaden the culture of political debate. In this respect, contrary to received opinion, the Brotherhood loathes what it considers the destructive excesses of individualism and the oppressive forces of secularism. Post-modern political correctness should not inhibit us from addressing that thorny issue. It matters tremendously. Alongside the military the winners in Egypt’s parliament will help write the country’s new constitution. To pass it needs a two-thirds vote in parliament, which the FJP could have if it formed a coalition with al-Nour. Recently, however, the ultra-conservative Salafis who vilify secularism have reached out to liberal parties to form a minority coalition against what they see as the Brotherhood’s near monopoly on power. As academics Philpott, Shah, and Toft argue here:

The choice facing Arab Spring nations at this point isn’t one between religion and secular government. It’s a choice between democracy that includes all parties — religious and secular—and a regime that imposes a rigid and exclusive secularism.

That distinction is important. In his in-depth historical survey, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, the late academic Richard P. Mitchell writes that although early adherents to the Brotherhood believed their ruler must be “knowledgeable in Muslim jurisprudence, just, pious, and virtuous,” they also believed that “‘The nation,’ ‘the people’, in fact, are the source of all the ruler’s authority: ‘The nation alone is the source of power; bowing to its will is a religious obligation.”

If, in fact, Egypt’s Islamists believe in the “social contract,” in which rulers are the chosen agents of the people, the concern among many in the West that Egypt’s Islamists are inherently incompatible with democracy misses the point. Democracy in an Egyptian context will undoubtedly produce something different; for religious movements like the Brotherhood their primary political focus is the maintenance of Islam. After generations of being oppressed under secular tyrannies, the Brotherhood’s strong defense of Islam through civic activism has resonated with the majority of Egyptians.

Egypt’s revolution is still a work in progress, and thus far, it has not been pretty. A Muslim reformation could be the wave of the future. But while austere interpretations of Islamist doctrine are at odds with Western liberal democratic principles, such contradictions are precisely what Egyptians must sort out. Breathing down their collective neck and attempting to shape their political destiny harms their ability to resolve such incompatibilities on their own terms.

As I wrote a while back, admittedly on a slightly different topic:

Western policymakers, in their attempt to export liberal democracy, also run the risk of establishing a frame of social and political expectation and thereby making the dynamics most necessary for social change inflexible and ethnocentric. Because foreign-led efforts implicitly deprive local people of their ability to deal with social conflicts on their own, there is an argument to be made that societies grow more attached to that which they have sacrificed through arduous struggle.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Hillary Clinton Heads to Burma

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travels to the isolated nation of Burma, officially known as Myanmar, in an attempt to spur the reform process. “After years of darkness, we’ve seen flickers of progress,” said President Barack Obama of the troubled country. By visiting Burma Secretary Clinton can test the new government’s willingness to do more.

Of course, the Clinton initiative may fail. But the main argument for the policy change is not that it is certain to work, but that the alternative has failed. Isolating Burma has achieved nothing.

Burma long has been one of the most tragic of nations. The military regime brutally suppressed the democracy movement led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Even more deadly has been the half-century long battle with ethnic groups like the Karen, which have sought autonomy in the east.

The United States and Europe responded with sanctions, but to no avail. China took advantage to secure a position of political influence and economic dominance. The military regime continued to live up to its reputation for brutality and corruption.

Now there are “flickers of progress,” as the president suggested. A badly flawed election last year; a new, nominally civilian government; the release of a few political prisoners; liberty for Ms. Suu Kyi, who also has been meeting with government ministers; and a slight break between Burma and its chief patron, Beijing.

Individually these are but small changes, and the Burmese military has previously offered tantalizing reforms only to reverse course, intensifying its brutal suppression of any opposition. However, the combination of many small steps offers hope that something more real may be happening this time. Even Suu Kyi has expressed optimism, and is preparing to reenter politics—legally.

Equally important is the increasing evidence that Burma wants to balance the influence of its imperious neighbor China. For all of the worries in America about Beijing’s growing clout around the world, the People’s Republic of China is finding out—just as the United States discovered years ago—that friends can be expensive to buy and often don’t stay bought.

Engaging Burma could encourage that state to continue on a more independent course—separate from China. The regime isn’t likely to dump its patron, but any distance between the two would be progress. The PRC’s churlish reaction to the Clinton initiative suggests that Beijing is concerned.

An adjustment in U.S. policy toward Burma was sorely needed. Isolation resulted in few positive outcomes. For the most part Asian nations, even America’s friends, ignored U.S. and European sanctions. The regime did not fall; Suu Kyi was not freed; democracy did not come; the ethnic groups did not enjoy peace. The generals simply tightened their grip.

Although this policy failure long has been obvious, no one wanted to “reward” the Burmese regime by dropping economic penalties. This left U.S. policy stuck in a political cul-de-sac. Sanctions were ineffective, doing nothing to advance human rights. But they could not be changed for the sake of appearance.

Nascent reform in Burma now offers Washington an opportunity to shift course. No one should get their hopes up. The regime may intend to only adopt a few reforms as window-dressing to win Western aid. Even if the commitment to change is real, the road to a better life for the Burmese people remains long and hard.

Nevertheless, for the first time in years there truly are “flickers of progress” in Burma. The administration is right to try to turn these flickers into something more. A desperately poor and oppressed people deserve a better life.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Wednesday Links

  • Next up for marriage equality: Perry v. Schwarzenegger. Please join us at 12:00 p.m. Eastern today as co-counsels for the plaintiffs Theodore Olson and John Boies join Center for American Progress president John Podesta and Cato chairman Robert A. Levy for a panel discussion on marriage equality, exploring legal and moral questions dating back to the landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision that ended state bans on interracial marriage. If you cannot join us here at Cato, please tune in to watch a live stream of the event.
  • “Republicans have an opportunity for a much more important debate, which will frame the election campaign next year.”
  • In President Obama’s next speech, Cato director of foreign policy studies Christopher Preble hopes “that the president reaffirms the importance of peaceful regime change from within, not American-sponsored regime change from without.”
  • What will former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s next position on health care be?
  • Like cleanliness next to godliness, so is democracy next to tyranny.
  • The U.S. hit the debt limit–what’s next?


The President’s Next Middle East Speech

The news media is abuzz with speculation about what President Obama will say in an address this Thursday at the State Department. The topic is the Middle East, and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney explained, “we’ve gone through a remarkable period in the first several months of this year…in the Middle East and North Africa,” and the president has “some important things to say about how he views the upheaval and how he has approached the U.S. response to the events in the region.” The speech, Carney hinted to reporters, would be “fairly sweeping and comprehensive.”

If I were advising the president, I would urge him to say many of the same things that he said in his June 2009 speech in Cairo, this time with some timely references to the recent killing of Osama bin Laden, and an explanation of what the killing means for U.S. counterterrorism operations, and for our relations with the countries in the region.

Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s long-time number two (now, presumably, its number one) railed for years about overthrowing the “apostate” governments in North Africa and the Middle East. And yet, one of the biggest stories from the popular movements that have swept aside the governments in Tunisia and Egypt, and may yet do so in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, is al Qaeda’s utter irrelevance. President Obama won’t need to dwell on this very long to make an important point.

The killing of Osama bin Laden doesn’t signal the end of al Qaeda, but it might signal the beginning of the end. In reality, al Qaeda has been under enormous pressure for years, but that hasn’t stopped the organization from carrying out attacks—attacks which have mainly killed and injured innocent Muslims since 9/11. It is no wonder that al Qaeda is enormously unpopular in the one place where bin Laden and his delusional cronies sought to install the new Caliphate. How’s that working out, Osama?

Al Qaeda had nothing to do with the reform movements that have swept across North Africa and the Middle East; the United States has had little to do with them either. That is as it should be. These uprisings were spontaneous, arising from the bottom up, and they are more likely to endure because they were not imposed by outsiders. Sadly, the same will not be said of the Libyans who rose up against Muammar Qaddafi, without any special encouragement from the United States. If the anti-Qaddafi forces ultimately succeed in overthrowing his four-decades long rule, President Obama’s decision to intervene militarily on their behalf ensures that some will question their legitimacy. The same would be true in Syria, or in Iran, if the United States were seen as having a hand in selecting the future leaders of those countries.

Barack Obama was elected president in part because he publicly opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq at a time when many Americans, including many in his own party, were either supportive or silent. He had a special credibility with the American people, and among people in the Middle East, because he worried that the Iraq war was likely to undermine American and regional security, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and claim many tens of thousands of lives. Tragically, he was correct.

There is a right way, and a wrong way, to go about promoting human freedom. In Thursday’s speech, I hope that the president reaffirms the importance of peaceful regime change from within, not American-sponsored regime change from without.

The United States remains, as it has been for two centuries, a well-wisher to people’s democratic aspirations all over the world. But we learned a painful lesson in Iraq, and we should be determined not to repeat that error elsewhere. That is a message worth repeating, both for audiences over there, and for those over here.

Cross-posted from The National Interest

Should America ‘Liberate’ Libya?

In 2008, the election of President Barack Obama was widely touted as a repudiation of President George W. Bush’s messianic vision that “Our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity—men and women—to reach their full potential.” In the years following America’s failed democratic experiment in Iraq, many Americans began to spurn the Bush era’s presumptuous conviction that “We have the power to make the world we seek.” Liberals in particular roundly rejected the supposed “unyielding belief” that America is called to lead the cause of “rule of law” and “the equal administration of justice” around the world. Such pious declarations are in keeping with Bush’s neo-Wilsonian foreign policy.  Does it surprise you then, that all of the quotes above were made by President Obama in his June 2009 speech at Cairo University?

Americans who favor establishing a no-fly zone over Libya hope that such an effort will save lives. What Americans have not learned is exactly what transgressions warrant the use of American force. The primary constitutional function of the U.S. Government is to defend against threats to the national interest. However, because the definition of “interest” has expanded by leaps and bounds, the United States now combats an exhausting proliferation of “threats” even in the absence of discernable enemies. Hence, the proposal of a no-fly zone over Libya is merely the latest iteration of a long-standing grand strategy that implicitly endorses an interventionist foreign policy.

Despite the fact that humanitarian assistance to Libya remains, in principle, morally defensible, the primary question is whether military action is best suited to such a task. As Christopher Coyne, Assistant Professor of Economics at West Virginia University argues, its the “Nirvana Fallacy.”

The Nirvana Fallacy is the false assumption that in the face of weak, failed or illiberal governments, external occupiers can provide a better outcome than what would exist in the absence of those efforts. But what authority does President Obama have to embark upon a mission to change the very structure of societies on the other side of the earth?

As a libertarian, I believe that intangible variables such as values, traditions, and belief systems, go beyond a U.S. policymaker’s ability—and jurisdiction—to control. Yet with worldwide attention now on Libya, it seems that once again the extension of freedom abroad is being subsumed under the mantle of America’s legitimate self-defense. Don’t believe the hype.

As George Kennan, American diplomat and “father of Cold War containment” strategy once said:

“Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end, you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before…In other words, war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it.”

Kennan continues: “Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.”

Now imagine if a politician wanted to build a bridge and said “I don’t know how much it will cost. I don’t know how many engineers I need. I don’t know how long it will take. And I don’t know whether it’ll even get built or stay up if it is. But give me the money and I’ll build the bridge anyway.” Yet this is exactly what we do when it comes to intervention. Never mind how long a no-fly zone will last, how many soldiers we would commit, or how whether it may precipitate a ground invasion and possibly regime change. We apply more stringent criteria to domestic policy than to proposals to pacify a foreign population.

Like most Americans, I too have a natural desire to see human suffering alleviated.  And so the United States can and should support people’s power and other anti-government movements when possible. But Americans have become confused over what “support” really means. Not backing dictators with billions of dollars would be a start. Another would be, when feasible, resorting to economic sanctions, though they have a poor track record. But we have come to rely too heavily—almost as an option of first resort—of relying on military intervention. Luckily, the shockwave of mass protests sweeping through the Middle East finally gives America the opportunity to support freedom in the Middle East in a non-military way. Accordingly, a foreign-led effort to liberate Libya will implicitly deprive local people of their ability to deal with this political conflict on their own. As British philosopher John Stuart Mill writes in his classic text “A Few Words on Nonintervention,” the subjects of an oppressive ruler must achieve freedom for themselves:

The only test possessing any real value, of a people’s having become fit for popular institutions is that they, or a sufficient portion of them to prevail in the contest, are willing to brave labour and danger for their liberation.

But the evil is, that if they have not sufficient love of liberty to be able to wrest it from merely domestic oppressors, the liberty which is bestowed on them by other hands than their own, will have nothing real, nothing permanent.