The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Missing the point on democratization

July 29, 2006

Steven Cook (who holds a PhD from my department I might add) argues in the Washington Post this morning that the current problems in the Middle East are not to be blames on President Bush’s democratization strategy. It isn’t that there has been too much democratization to-date, but rather too little. Unfortunately, his analysis suffers from a number of problems: a rather weighty faith in the power of democratization and ignoring the more substantial causal power of state capacity.

Cook’s argument boils down to this:

You cannot blame the current crisis in the region on democratization because a) Hamas and Hezbollah are not truly ‘democratic’ actors; b) Hezbollah has been part of the government in Lebanon for over 14 years, well before the current administration’s policies took effect; and c) both militant groups have long used the abduction of Israelis to either create a military response or to negotiate the release of Israeli-held prisoners.

Cook is most certainly correct about c). However, this does little to bolster his defense of democratization.

Regarding points a) and b) above, it does not matter whether Hamas and Hezbollah are truly democratic actors (whatever that means). The point of most critics when it comes to aggressive democratization is that holding competitive elections (defined as those where the outcome is in question) is that you do not know what actors will come to power as a result. Democracy does not guarantee that only ‘democratic’ actors will win (note: I think Cook here is confusing democratic with liberal, but you can read his column and decide for yourselves). Minimally speaking (and I tend to follow Schumpeter here), democracy is simply a process (one of many) for selecting who gets to rule. Even with repeated elections there is no guarantee that the values Cook speaks about will be instilled and/or respected by those elected. Take a quick look-see around the globe and one finds a great number of “illiberal” democracies. Rather than bolster his case, the fact that Hezbollah has been elected to seats in the Lebanese government since 1992 should give all policymakers pause when considering policies of democratization. If one is trying to absolve the current administration of blame that’s fine; if you are trying to defend democratization in general this seems a self-defeating example at best.

Cook and I seem to be in agreement that one significant step towards ending the cycle of this conflict is the elimination of actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah. It is the “how” and not the “what” where we part company.

Cook dedicates the rest of his column to discussing why more democracy would have accomplished this, specifically with regards to Lebanon. I find his logic wholly unconvincing. He states:

The real problem in Lebanon is not too much democracy but too little. Had Lebanon emerged from its spring 2005 “independence uprising” as a democracy, Hezbollah could not have continued to operate as an armed and thus autonomous faction. Lost in almost all of the commentary about the fighting in Lebanon is the fact that many Lebanese who do not support Hezbollah wish that the organization could be disarmed. Thus the best way of dealing with the Hezbollah problem is not by Israeli arms but by Lebanese public opinion.

Exactly how? Cook here is engaging in “faith-based” commentary—believing in the power of democratization to simply overcome the realities on the ground in Lebanon. I am sure he is right that many Lebanese despise Hezbollah (although the poll numbers are shifting as a result of the conflict). However, public opinion cannot substitute for state capacity. How exactly is the government supposed to disarm and domesticate Hezbollah? By asking politely? How are elections going to substitute for the massive social services that Hezbollah provides to the southern part of the country? Ignoring the influence that the latter has on public loyalty to Hezbollah (or any other group for that matter) is unwarranted.

He finishes by stating that:

…only authoritarian leaders can inflict damage on their societies with confidence that they will not be held accountable. Neither Hezbollah nor Hamas is democratic, and both rely on non-democratic governments in Damascus and Tehran to pursue objectives that majorities of the Palestinian and Lebanese populations do not necessarily support. If Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iran were truly democratic, it is unlikely that Hezbollah and Hamas could engage in irresponsible policies that bring only pain to their people.

Again, I think this is an empirical question. But placing that aside, Cook fails to consider the possibility that authoritarian states, while despicable in many ways, may have an advantage over democracies in one area—state capacity. Such a relationship is not guaranteed. But certainly democratization does not magically endow a state with a monopoly on violence within its territory as well as the ability to deliver critical social services to its citizens (which always goes a long way towards wooing public opinion).

I sympathize with Cook’s perspective but by focusing on (liberal) democracy and not on the more critical issue of state capacity he misses what I see as a key cog in the machinery of change in the region. The proper recipe is still unknown—how much state capacity? How much democratization? What is the proper ratio between the two? What is the proper sequence? But what should be unmistakable by this point is that ignoring the importance of state capacity (and overemphasizing the power of democratization) is a recipe for disaster.

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.