Tim Bradley, Staff Writer
Is promoting democracy in the Middle East a mistake? Do all people truly desire to be free? These were the questions posed by author, lecturer, and former university administrator Dr. John Agresto while delivering a lecture at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies. The lecture, sponsored by the Kellogg Institute and the Undergraduate Constitutional Studies Minor, was delivered on January 17.
Agresto was introduced by Dr. Vincent Phillip Muñoz, director of the new undergraduate minor in Constitutional Studies, who noted that, “March 20, 2013, will mark the 10-year anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
Muñoz was glad to welcome Agresto to campus to discuss the worthiness of promoting democracy in the Middle East. At the request of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Agresto has been involved with education reform in Iraq since 2003.
Agresto began by discussing his background in liberal education, including serving as president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe for 11 years.
“I tend to be a fairly conservative person, and I adhere to many conservative beliefs.” Among such beliefs is the idea justice does not change from one place to another, “Originally I believed that both cultural relativism and historicism are wrong; I now want to modify these beliefs.”
Agresto explained while self-evident truths may indeed be true, they may not be self-evident to every person. To demonstrate how this can be, Agresto described a conversation he once had with a college dean from the University of Baghdad. This dean did not understand why Americans were interfering in Iraq. Agresto replied that he believed the Americans were doing the right thing by helping the Iraqis. The dean’s retort: “No one leaves home and country and family to go to another country to help. It’s unnatural.”
While this dean struggled to understand why the Americans were in Iraq, Agresto, as a civilian working for the Pentagon, “was not only an actor on the ground but a strong believer in [America’s] efforts there.”
Part of this belief stemmed from America’s historical track record of democratic nation-building. From Germany, Italy, and Japan after the First World War, to various eastern European countries, to East and West Germany after the Second World War, America has demonstrated a capacity and zealousness for the process of outsourcing democracy.
Americans believe that democracy is the system in which all people want to live, if given the choice. Hence the source of the belief of many Americans in Iraq in 2003 that planting the seeds of democratic rule in the Middle East was good.
Meanwhile, Agresto said, the gap between expectations and reality was only growing wider. Some functions of a democracy, such as a party system, were in place, but other important components, such as cooperation and peace, were absent.
The people of Iraq realized that democracy is simply another way of arranging power and the end result could be either good or bad. While the Americans gave the impression that creating and sustaining a democratic country was easy, Agresto learned that, “there [are few things] harder [than] to create than a good democracy. Autocracy is easy, but a liberal and just democracy is hard to make and harder to maintain.”
Agresto argued the answer to the question, “don’t all men wish to be free?” is not “yes,” as many would assume, but “no.”
Some people prefer other goods to freedom. “Some would rather be holy or safe rather than free. Some men kiss their chains,” Agresto explained. He argued that the above question is not the right question to ask. Instead, one should ask, “do you want your neighbor to be free?” In a place such as Iraq, Agresto believes the answer to that question would be no, and as such, the prerequisite trust needed to build a liberal democracy is absent.
Democracy takes on the character of its people. Liberal democracy is close to impossible to create when there is no patriotism, love of neighbor, or willingness to compromise. Government does not create the culture; rather, culture allows the creation of a government fitting of it.
Of all the things that Agresto learned during his time in Iraq, one of the most important is that cultures are different and cultures matter. Freedom and democracy have cultural preconditions and in some places these things are absent. As such, Agresto has taken a pessimistic view on the future of democracy of in the Middle East: “The tumultuousness of the Arab spring will not lead to a calm, steady democratic way of life,” he said.
Instead, things will get messier during a period of increased oppression against minorities.
In the end, if the culture of a nation does not provide the necessary foundation for democracy, “the promotion of democracy may well hinder cultural change more so than the autocratic regime before it.” Such a lesson will be important for America to remember in confronting future challenges.
Tim Bradley is a freshman studying theology and economics. He aspires to join the Harlem Globetrotters and bring smiles, not democracy, to all nations. Contact him at email@example.com.