There is such a thing as intellectual fashion and fashionable thinking is decidedly turning against the post-September 11 "Bush Doctrine" of muscular democracy promotion. A growing chorus of critics charge that the US-led invasion to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein has rendered the greater Middle East a tinder box for years, perhaps even decades, to come. There is an unmistakable "whiff of incipient anarchy" in the air, warns prominent foreign affairs correspondent Robert D. Kaplan.
These gloomy appraisals are not just confined to the ranks of the opinion elite. The Confidence in US Foreign Policy Index, a joint venture between the non-partisan Public Agenda and Foreign Affairs magazine, reveals that only one in five Americans see creating democracies as a very important goal.
Indeed, most of the public ranks promoting democracy in other countries as the least important of the foreign policy goals polled in the survey. Six months ago, 50 percent thought the United States was doing well at promoting democracy; this time the number is trending downward to 46 percent.
These numbers reinforce a recent poll conducted by the MIT opinion research lab and published in Boston Review which indicated that only 27 percent of Americans approve the use of US military troops to assist the spread of democracy. A plurality of those polled agreed that "the United States should take care of the well-being of Americans and not get involved with other nations."
YET ROBERT Kaplan takes this view one provocative step further, arguing in a recent article in The Washington Post that such interventions are not only imprudent, but morally questionable. Basing his critique on the writing of Thomas Hobbes, Kaplan argues that there can be no freedom without security. Because despotic regimes have a monopoly on the use of force they can safeguard against anarchy. Therefore, Kaplan writes, a state that is despotic is not necessarily immoral - an "essential fact of the Middle East that those intent on enforcing democracy abroad forget."
Instead, Kaplan argues for passivity and patience, insisting that the last thing America or liberal democratic powers should do is aggressively try to topple dictatorships.
Given the debacle in Iraq, it is understandable that both public and punditry have become leery of intervention and skeptical of democratization. But Kaplan's pessimistic passivism is both morally untenable and strategically shortsighted. While despotism may be preferable to anarchy, the fact that despotism holds potential anarchy at bay does not make it moral. To the contrary, despotism is by its very nature immoral as it denies its subjects their agency and dignity and their right to freely choose their government. Irrespective of how "enlightened" a tyranny may appear, a despotic regime must perforce resort to terror and repression to remain in power.
The moral obligation to provide personal security is as important as the duty to provide freedom. But the systematic murder, torture and terror that obtained under Saddam Hussein and that persists under the dictatorships the world over makes a mockery of personal security and of any suggestion that dictators can be trusted to guarantee it.
Subject to tyranny, the individual is at the mercy of the Leviathan, prey to the cruelty and caprice of a despot who claims personal sovereignty over both nation and state.
It would be a great shame if American and other liberal democracies turned away from democratization and intervention simply because we fear anarchy. We too are horrified by the dismal, murderous state of affairs in large swaths of Iraq. We too are shocked by the spectacular failure of the Bush administration to provide security and stability in Iraq.
But Bush's negligence and incompetence do not make a virtue of dictatorship. Legitimacy derives from the consent of the governed, not from the capacity to crush dissent by fear or force. Any regime that wields power without that consent and denies its subjects the freedom to dissent can have no claim to moral legitimacy.
Strongmen and juntas have no more claim to legitimacy than a terrorist who takes others hostage. Any accommodation with such a regime must only be pragmatic, for fear of bringing harm to the hostages and always with an eye to set them free. Each case has its own moral and strategic calculus of course, and intervention or democratization need not take the form of military action in every circumstance. Indeed, such interventions should be rare. But the abetting of tyranny is not in America's interest, nor will passivity spare us from anarchy.
"GLOBALIZATION and other dynamic forces will continue to rid the world of dictatorships," Kaplan argues. "Political change is nothing we need to force upon people; it's something that will happen anyway."
But if such sweeping historical change is inevitable, this actually undermines Kaplan's argument for passivity. It presages the kind of terrible anarchy he fears. We can have no confidence that the collapse of dictatorships from within will be smooth or peaceful. Part of that breakdown will inevitably include the entrenchment of tyrannies against Kaplan's "dynamic forces" of globalization.
To survive, these tyrannies under siege will become ever more brutal and repressive, eroding what remains of any civil society and thereby diminishing the best hope of preventing anarchy in the wake of their collapse. Under the doctrine of passivity - or what Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair recently branded the "doctrine of benign activity" - we would become ever more reliant on that repression to ward off anarchy, and ever more complicit in its brutality.
With the failure of post-colonial and post-Soviet sovereignty to provide freedom or security in many parts of the world, the potential for anarchy is enormous. As America seeks desperately to wash its hands of the mayhem in Iraq, the slaughter goes on in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo, drawing in neighboring states and hundreds of thousands of new victims. Anarchy is already here (as Kaplan himself pointed out in his prescient 1994 essay, "The Coming Anarchy").
The question is what to do about it. The emerging post-Iraq world will require something more subtle and nuanced than the Bush doctrine, and something less willfully oblivious and morally egregious than Kaplan's policy of passivity. Both are a kind of recklessness. Coddling despots will not serve our interests, nor will abandoning support for aggressive democracy promotion stave off anarchy. Kaplan's argument purports to be the expression of a new "realism" in American foreign policy. But his is the most dangerous kind of wishful thinking.
Goldstein is a Washington DC-based writer. Westbrook lives in New York City and is a former editor of New Voices, an American magazine for Jewish college students.