According to the headline for his article last weekend, Elliott Abrams believes that the political crisis sweeping the Middle East is “proof [G. W.] Bush was right” when he made the transition from despotism to liberty a rhetorical goal of U.S. cooperation with friendly Arab governments in the Middle East. Abrams asks, “Will our own government learn that dictatorships are never truly stable? For beneath the calm surface enforced by myriad security forces, the pressure for change only grows – and it may grow in extreme and violent forms when real debate and political competition are denied.”
Later in the article, Abrams criticizes the Obama faction, “which dismissed Bush’s ‘freedom agenda’ as overly ideological and meant essentially to defend the invasion of Iraq.” He asserts to the contrary that that “Bush’s support for the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and for a democratic Palestinian state showed” that “he was defending self-government. …”
As I read Abrams’ article, I found myself thinking of Macduff’s reaction in the scene from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (Act IV, Scene 3), when Malcolm recants his seeming love of tyrant passions: “Such welcome and unwelcome things at once, ‘Tis hard to reconcile.” Bush’s liberty-focused rhetoric notwithstanding, in Lebanon and among the Palestinians the results obtained from promoting democracy illustrate precisely what America has to dread from the rising tide of anger and resentment against Arab governments more or less friendly to the United States. Today the terrorist Hezbollah faction is in de facto control of Lebanon and the terrorist Hamas faction governs in Gaza and has broad support among Palestinians in general.
The Muslim Brotherhood is poised to achieve similar power and influence in Egypt. All these factions represent the mélange of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism that presently characterizes the Islamic regime in Iran. Whatever their sectarian differences, they are all more likely than not to replace forceful, politically motivated authoritarian repression with forceful, religiously motivated totalitarian repression. Such a result will have nothing to do with liberty. It will doubtless have much to do with increasing direct threats of violence and terror against the United States, European countries and whatever is left of the supposedly “moderate” governments among the Arab or Islamic countries.
Whatever his intentions, Elliott Abrams and many who think as he does misunderstand the real nature of the political challenge they purport to analyze. Abrams says that “dictatorships are never truly stable.” If he and other elements of the American elite any longer respected the wisdom of America’s founders, he would say with greater truth, “Democracies are never truly stable.” In Federalist No. 10, James Madison observed that “democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
To be precise, Madison’s subject was “pure democracy … a society consisting of a small number of persons who assemble and administer the government in person.” But size was important only because it meant that “a common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole. …” On account of religious and technological factors, most countries in the Islamic world today represent the ever-present possibility of such a common passion or interest, in the face of which “there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual.”
Moreover, Elliot Abrams, like many of America’s contemporary elites (including those in the Obama faction he appears to criticize) treat words like “liberty” and “freedom” as if they are simply interchangeable. But among the elites in the United States today, “freedom” has come to be synonymous with sexual licentiousness and libertinism; with the denial of natural or religious moral standards and constraints; with institutional acceptance of homosexuality; with legally enforced subversion of respect for parental authority; with legally abetted access to abortion, even for minors acting without parental knowledge or consent; and so on.
Just as dictatorship leads to anger and resentment against forcefully imposed repression, so promoting licentiousness under the name of freedom leads to anger and resentment against so-called liberty. This is the dirty little secret America’s presently dominant elites are anxious to keep. America’s identification with unbridled sexual hedonism and material self-indulgence gives rise to fear among people in Islamic countries, and in fact in most countries where social order depends on respect for the procreational family.
Fundamentalist religious and cultural leaders easily rouse and exploit this fear. As if to aid them in this respect, elites trained and educated in American schools and universities imbibe immoral attitudes that inevitably affect their conduct when they return home. They become quietly effective posters lending credibility to what the anti-American imams and others say about the “Satanic” evil associating with America represents.
America’s founders understood that tyranny and licentious democracy (what they called mob rule) are partners in a deadly dance. Together they cycle through human history destroying the likelihood and credibility of stable government of, by and for the people. Yet there is in most societies a decent majority of people who oppose both tyranny and licentiousness. They instinctively understand that liberty exists only where freedom is governed by respect for what is right, including the individual’s respect for doing right by the natural obligations that must discipline sexual and material indulgence if humanity is to survive.
True liberty is founded upon this commitment to individual self-government. If this understanding of liberty were effectively applied when formulating the goals and strategies of America’s foreign and domestic policy, it would provide a basis for decent unity at home and cooperation with the forces of decent humanity throughout the world. But at present this cannot happen because America’s elites are reduced to incompetence by their determination to ignore or discard the moral foundations of American life. They have no use for the understanding of human rights that begins with respect for the moral right or law whereby the Creator God of America’s Declaration of Independence intends to govern and sustain all humanity.
We will be what it takes to defeat violent fundamentalism in the world at large only when, here at home, we recommit ourselves to the moral truths that are the foundation for peaceful self-government. Then our rhetoric of liberty will ring true once more, and resonate with the hope for decent freedom shared by people everywhere.