The Tyranny of Democracy

With the possible exception of Venezuela, all democracies on earth are considered at least moderately pro-American. Is this because the US is such a model democracy that all other democracies are naturally friendly to it?  Or are all democracies naturally friendly to each other?  Americans may like to think so, but closer inspection reveals a very different picture.

Venezuela is instructive, because its democracy was considered pro-American before the rise of its immensely popular president, Hugo Chavez, who sought an economic and foreign policy that was independent from the US. That democracy was almost lost in a 2002 attempted coup, with the US supporting the plotters.  Today, the US continues to side with the same forces seeking to remove Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro.  One might suspect that democracies that choose an independent path and are not favorable to US meddling (“leadership”) become targets for forcible or coerced change.

If Venezuela is such a target, it is one of a long line that the US has considered “not ready” for democracy, and which the US chooses to overthrow in favor of a more compliant tyranny that accepts American direction and permits American economic exploitation. The replacement governments have more often than not been brutal and autocratic, and have always been installed through the covert or overt use of US power. These include Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960), Chile (1973), Nicaragua (1990), Haiti (2004), Palestine (2007), Honduras (2009) and Ukraine (2014).

Of course, democracy and anti-Americanism are relative, not absolute. Democracy is a continuum, with countries like Norway and Iceland among the most democratic and North Korea among the least.  So, too, are pro- and anti-Americanism, with economic exploitation and strategic cooperation and compliance as the primary determiners of “friendliness”.

In fact, compliance with US economic and strategic interests is a far greater factor in US intervention than promotion of democracy, which gets mere lip service. Most of Europe is part of NATO and accepts US “leadership”, which is a bit like the mafia leadership of Sicily. Costa Rica is considered one of the most democratic Latin American countries, but it finds itself in a similar situation, as do most Latin American countries, whether democratic or not.

It is also one of the key principles of the neoconservative movement, which has arguably dominated US policy since the Reagan administration, and especially in the G.W. Bush and Obama years. Founding member Jeane Kirkpatrick argued that stable and loyal dictatorships make better partners than unstable and potentially undependable democracies (with the implication that if they are undependable, they also deserve to be unstable, and can be made so). Then, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Paul Wolfowitz and later neocons added that the US should discourage (with prejudice) the emergence of any power that might be independent from – or might compete with – US policies and dominance.

The rule is that democratic countries apparently have no right to elect “anti-American” governments or to chafe under US domination of their economies and foreign policies. If they do, they are liable to become victims of US-instigated “regime change”, as expressed by the bumper sticker “Be nice to America, or we’ll bring democracy to your country”.

Of course, the US has overthrown “non-democratic” countries, as well, like Vietnam, Indonesia, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, but this also raises the question of what constitutes a “democratic” government.  “Unfriendly” countries are more likely to be considered “undemocratic” in western societies, while western societies tend to overlook or be more tolerant of “friendly” regimes that have little democracy at all.

Take the neighboring countries of Syria and Jordan, for example. Jordan has an unelected monarch as head of state, who cannot be removed by any legal procedure.  The prime minister, the heads of the security agencies and all 65 members of the Senate are appointed by the King.  The House of Representatives has 130 elected members, but the King may dismiss the government at any time.

By contrast, the Syrian head of state is an elected president. The presidential elections are arguably more democratic than those of the United States. There are, for example, no “battleground states” or winner-take-all electoral college blocs.  The total number of popular votes is sole determiner of the election. Three candidates were on the ballot in the 2013 presidential election.

The parliamentary elections are also contested by an unlimited number of parties, of which there are currently 22. In the 2016 elections, the ruling Ba’ath party won 134 of the 250 seats, and their coalition partners from another six parties won 34 more. Two opposition parties took another five seats and the remaining 77 were won by independents.  Groups trying to overthrow the government by force of arms chose not to participate, and boycotted the elections.

Both Jordan and Syria rank high in freedom of religion and women’s rights, and women comprise 13% of the parliament in both countries, compared to 19% in the US Congress. But only Syria is a secular state, with no state religion, while in Jordan, Islam has official status.

Despite all this, Jordan ranks significantly higher than Syria in a commonly referenced democracy index. Why? Is it because the index is formulated by The Economist Group, an institution that is a bastion of elite western society? Does this explain why even Saudi Arabia, which has no elections at all, ranks as “more democratic” than Syria? Is Russia both democratic and anti-American?  Or is America anti-Russian, and is that why Russia ranks lower than Jordan and Kuwait on the democracy scale?  Clearly, the western democracies consider the more compliant regimes to be more “democratic” than ones that resist western domination.

So how can a society get out from under US domination and set its own economic and foreign policy?  The lesson of “anti-American” democracies is that open, liberal democratic systems are ripe for subversion and cooptation, which has been used to overturn “unfriendly” regimes by supporting opposition parties, as in Nicaragua, or by helping the opposition to stage a coup, as in Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Chile, Haiti, and Ukraine.

The US has had to use more heavy-handed tactics with security states like Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Libya and Syria. In these states, the security services are capable of nipping an insurrection in the bud. They are thus less permeable to manipulation, which is why they have required actual invasion in order to “bring democracy” to their country. Cuba has proven very resistant to both manipulation and invasion.

Obviously, the existence of powerful security services is inconsistent with democracy. On the other hand, it is clear that the US will not tolerate a true democracy that offers its citizens the choice of rejecting US exploitation and domination. For many or most societies, therefore, the only choice is independence or a US-dominated “democracy”.

Until 2011, Syria was and in many respects still is a stable, secular society.  It was and in government areas still is a place where everyone can feel safe most of the time. No one questions the right of all people to worship as they please or not to worship at all. Syria had no foreign debt.  Foreign investment is restricted so as to preserve Syrian control of its factories and businesses, which are mostly privately owned, and to protect them from powerful global corporate interests. It follows a very independent foreign policy, which is not at all like that of the US, but it has cooperated with the US when their interests occasionally coincide, such as with the Iraqi refugee crisis.

The price for this independence, personal safety and social tolerance has been a highly vigilant and repressive security service that is intrusive and intolerant of activity that it deems potentially threatening to national security.  Societies that opt for US domination may not require the same level of vigilance, because there is no threat of a US-sponsored insurgency. Nevertheless, many incorporate a strong secret police in order to suppress anti-American elements.  Unfortunately, rampant corruption is also a major element of both independent and US-dominated security states.

Most Syrians are very proud of their society, as are Cubans, Iranians, Russians and other independent-minded nations that incorporate a strong national security culture. Despite the abuses and intrusiveness of the security services, they prefer the benefits and fear the alternative.  This is why figures like Assad, Castro and Putin retain their immense popularity in these societies.

What other choice do we give these countries?  Until the US is ready to give up a culture of global dominance, of destruction of noncompliant societies, and to pursue a policy of mutual respect and mutual benefit, the prospect of liberal democracy is merely a means to manipulate a gullible citizenry to tolerate the most horrible crimes of their government.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Unfortunately, as long as the powerful seek to dominate the less powerful, the latter can only choose how – not if – their liberty will be compromised, and much blood may be spilled in defense of their choice.

Paul Larudee is a retired academic and current administrator of a nonprofit human rights and humanitarian aid organization. Read other articles by Paul.