Democracy: The Universal Solvent

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Updated: 19 Feb 2011

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This post is dedicated to the Egyptian Coptic Christians who participated in the protests in Tahrir square, largely ignored by the press, but claiming their ancient heritage as Egyptians, stood along side of their fellow Muslim citizens.

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In 8th grade science we were taught that water was considered the universal solvent. That is, given enough time, water would dissolve almost everything.  Water inexorably works its way into every crack, nook and cranny, saturating the soil, seeping through the dikes and dams built to try to hold it back.  In that sense, water will dissolve or penetrate any barrier it meets or finds a channel though which it can flow if given enough time.

In North Africa and the Middle East a new manifestation of that concept has appeared. The flowering of democracy and freedom among the populace to break the grip of autocratic and repressive theocratic regimes seems to be a gathering force that politically and socially is having the effect of a universal solvent against retrenched and decades long rule by dictators or monarchs. The water of democracy has not only found the cracks in the façade of those rulers who by force have imposed their will upon the people, but it has opened up channels and holes in those walls and is flowing with historically-unprecedented force.

First we saw Tunisia, which did not demand our attention immediately, although it should have. The success of the revolution, remarkable for its lack of violence, did make us sit up and take notice. The collapse of the government in a matter of days and the exile of the strongman ruler, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, were accomplished without the revolutionaries possessing guns.  In an ironic contrast, according to the Gun Rights doctrine espoused by millions who practically deify the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution here in the United States, Tunisia’s gunless should have been inconceivable let alone successful.

Then came Egypt. For eighteen days we held our collective breath as the unarmed protesters daily came in waves into Tahrir Square demanding President Hasni Mubarak’s resignation, a new democratic government, a new constitution, and a reduction in soaring food prices.  Each successive day we watched entranced, despairing that night the hated police attacked the protesters, who had managed to conduct their demonstrations with virtually no violence. Then finally, with stunned disbelief we again allowed ourselves to hope the cause might succeed for the Egyptian people when the army began taking very visible action to protect the protesters and take the reins of power from Mubarak and his cohorts. Though many questions remain, Egypt was transformed into a proto-democratic state in just over two weeks. Once again a government was toppled without the people being armed to the teeth and having no equivalent to the U.S. 2nd Amendment in their constitution. Bringing down a government without a heavily armed populace is not supposed to be within the realm of the possible.

Jordan’s King Hussein, educated in America, saw the events unfold and voluntarily began to institute democratic reforms. Whether they will be enough to satisfy the force of the democratic waves pounding against the shore of an autocratic monarchy remains to be seen. But here we have a third instance where the true power of the ideals of democracy works into the hearts of the oppressed and the realization of that dream does not require an armed populace.

Now we are again holding our breath as we watch the protests and demonstrations in Bahrain, Yemen, Palestine, Libya, Algeria, and most importantly, Iran.  The regimes of those autocratic and theocratic states are resorting to using brute force in their attempt to make the price of protest and dissention too high and to preserve their iron-grip on the status quo. What will the final outcome be?  Only time will tell.  None of these countries have a 2nd amendment on the right to bear arms.

There are, in my assessment, two broad consequences regarding bringing down a government by force. The first, when the population has unlimited access to firearms, an scenario is set up that will either almost certainly be a protracted or bloody revolution, or worse, an even bloodier civil war.  In recent years we have seen the horrendous conflicts in places like Rwanda, the breakup of Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, the Sudan, Somalia and Chechnya and East Timor, to name a few.

What we have witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt in the past few weeks is incontrovertible evidence that revolution by an unarmed populace does not require years but weeks, and does not require the blood of thousands. It also does not require that populace be armed with guns. Unfortunately the protests claimed the lives of a few dozen who were caught in the fringe of rage staged by the ruling regime’s police and their operatives.

But in recent history, this is not the first time we have seen a revolution succeed largely without violence. We watched two decades ago, transfixed, by the collapse of East Germany, and then to our greater astonishment the disintegration of our Cold War super-power adversary, the Soviet Union.  Poland and Czechoslovakia broke away from the Warsaw Pact and had their own versions of bloodless revolutions.  Czechoslovakia in particular separated into to two countries, The Czech Republic and Slovakia without a civil war.  Hungary voted to leave the Warsaw Pact with an 85% majority, as did Bulgaria, Estonia, and Latvia. Romania was the only Eastern European country to have a bloody revolution as part of its citizens overthrowing the government, ending in the execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena.

I cannot predict the outcome of the current protests for democratic reforms in these other nations, but I have confidence in the universal solvent of democracy.  The tide has turned. Even against massive state violence, as has happened in Iran and Bahrain, where the protesters are beaten back for a while, the regimes’ blindness to the unequalled strength of the democratic ideal will ultimately be their downfall.

The right to bear arms as a part of the Great American Experiment, as guaranteed in the Constitution in the context of the power of Democracy and Freedom, is appearing more and more like one of our greatest failures when placed against these historical events. We endured the horrors of one Civil War, and I can see no rationale that excludes a similar nightmare and threat to the Union should a group of radically discontented  people decide it is their right to overthrow the legally elected government by force.

Such action would be treason because all the other parts of the Constitution, which are more important than the 2nd Amendment, are the solid foundation we enjoy as a nation of laws as well as providing for the orderly transfer of power every eight years at the most, ensuring that democracy and freedom remain the keystone of The Republic.

What we have seen in the events unfolding in Africa and the Middle East is that the true power of Democracy and Freedom comes from the hearts of their people and not from their having all the guns in the world.  It is a lesson we Americans, particularly at this moment in our own history, need to understand where the reality actually lies.

Dr John Bogen contributed to this post.

Iraq’s Future: Blood or Hope?

War in Iraq: Seven Years of U.S. Sacrifice, Image Courtesy: Nicholas P. Maurstad

Last One Out, Please Close the Gate

Last night, local time in the Middle East at a border crossing between Iraq and Kuwait, the last Stryker Brigade of American Combat troops rolled through the gates ending seven years of United States military operations.  The combat role is finished and has been turned over to the Iraqi military.  Although the Stryker Brigade is being processed for their first day in Kuwait, a substantial force of non-combat military personnel remain, some 50,000 we are told.

Is the war over?  Did we win?

Iraqi Women Grieving Killed Relatives, Photo: AFP/Getty Images

The hope is that the combat part of the war is over.  The so-called advisors will have many roles, from training to consultation, to building ongoing relations with the Iraqis as their very fragile government tries to survive just one day at a time.  What strategy will the insurgents play?  Only time will tell.

Did we win?  Now that’s an interesting question.  Can you win a war that was begun under false pretenses?  Can you win a war that was started by a president of the United States who chose to either believe pure fantasy about a huge cache of weapons that never existed to begin with, or knowing they didn’t exist, fabricated a horrible lie, colluding with the officers of his administration do give the appearance that we were in state of a clear and present danger?

Since the evidence points to the president’s lying to the nation, an act of duplicity for which he will never have to face justice and neither will the officers who assisted him in constructing this completely false rationale for going to war, how, then, can we say that we won the war?

Started on False Pretenses, Ended on…?

What we did was topple a regime. We sought out an admittedly tyrannical dictator who oppressed his people, and let his sons run amok terrorizing any one they wished, simply on a whim.  The fact that all three of them are dead was a gift to the Iraqi people.  But the fact the war we brought to them cost the lives, according to the organization, Iraq Body Count,  of between 97,267 and 106,146 civilians as well as the deaths of over 4400 military Americans.  Many of these troops were killed trying to dodge the bullets and  IEDs of a no-holds-barred civil war between rival tribal and religious sects of the same religion. This circumstance lasting years does not leave one with a sense that our goals lined up with theirs.  And on both accounts, those numbers do not include the number of those wounded, maimed, left without spouses, or orphaned.

Graph of Iraqi Casualties. Image: Iraq Body Count

The truth remains that despite the last Stryker Brigade rumbling across the border into Kuwait, the war is not over.  50,000 U.S. troops will continue on for years to come.  One Iraqi official stated: “If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the U.S. army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020,” said the Iraqi military’s most senior officer Lt. Gen. Babakir Zebari last week.

Operation New Dawn is not the end of the war.  It is a new phase.  More Iraqis will die.  More Americans will die.  The jury of historical success or failure must remain silent for years to come.  But some facts are already self-evident, and

IED Explosion in Iraq. Photo: Wikipedia/PD

both the United States and the Iraqis have paid a terrible price for the decision of one man who out of spite, a twisted sense of revenge, incompetence, delusion, or unmitigated stupidity, started the war and conned a nation into going along with it.  While the two men and their henchmen remain free who we should have focused on like a laser beam to bring the down, to put a halt to the horrible

Bin Laden & al Zawahiri. Photo: Source Unkn

carnage they continue to spread around the world, a thousand opportunities were squandered by that administration to end the reign of terror those men and to pay for their murderous crime against the American people.  For that, George Bush, 43rd president of the United States, should be forever judged most harshly.

But What of Hope?

The old saying goes, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”  But sometimes through dogged determination, one can take the worst possible situation, and through hard work and creative thinking and planning bring some degree of good out of the bad.

This will be the paradox of the Iraqi war.  For all the wrong reasons we invaded Iraq.  The people our leaders believed would welcome us instead hated us even more.  The people freed from the masochism of Saddam Hussein instantly split from the suppressed religious and tribal fractures that Saddam had used constant brutality to hold together to control his regime.  We unleashed a monster of internecine savagery, an unintended consequence for which our leaders were totally unprepared or had any contingency to deal with.  For years we, the great liberators, were literally trapped by the rage going on around us, trying to bring order in a nation so spiritually shattered that they wanted to kill us so that they could kill each other more quickly.

Despite all that…despite all that, the soldiers of a handful of countries that came to stand beside us, and our American troops, figured out ways to bring hope to the Iraqis.  A million mistakes were undoubtedly made, but we are a people, or should I say a coalition, that don’t give up that easily.  Yes, the other countries withdrew their forces, including the British, who had been the second largest contingent, before the fighting was truly over.  But to their defense, many of their leaders saw the obvious and clear turning of events in Afghanistan, and moved their resources to that troubled land, where now they continue to fight alongside of our forces as they attempt to save Afghanistan from another Taliban regime, capable of a brutality that exceeds anything Saddam could have dreamed of many times over.

As the combat troops left last night, the question very much remains whether Iraq, is truly ready to embrace the new dawn our military has so optimistically chosen to call the next phase of the mission.  The answer may be that it ends in collapse and civil war, where millions might die this time.  It is my prayer that will not be the result, but I cannot predict the future.  It appears though that the sheer hatred the Iraqis demonstrated against the U.S. at the time of the invasion has tempered.  Though the rivers of mistrust of Americans and that the majority are Christians, runs deep, as the years have passed and the combat operations and firefights have subsided, our soldiers have had the chance to show the humanity that exists beneath the uniform.

Iraqi Child Kissing U.S. Soldier. Photo: AP/John Moore

Perhaps the chance to be human, to show kindness and even respect, after so many years of fighting has turned out to be irresistible to both the Americans and the Iraqis.

If that is true, then there is hope.

Bush’s Surge: The Arsonist Calls 911

Peter Beinhart, a senior fellow in the Council for Foreign Relations, a so-called conservative think-tank, published an op-ed column in the Washington Post on January 18, titled “Admit It: The Surge Worked.”  The column was printed in my home town newspaper, The Register Guard, today, in the Commentary Section.  The RG’s title was “Admit it: Bush was right, and courageous.”

I beg to differ.

Beinhart opens with the following thesis statement:

It’s no longer a close call: President Bush was right about the surge. According to Michael O’Hanlon and Jason Campbell of the Brookings Institution, the number of Iraqi war dead was 500 in November of 2008, compared with 3,475 in November of 2006. That same month, 69 Americans died in Iraq; in November 2008, 12 did.

All right, assuming O’Hanlon and Campbell of the Brookings Institution got the numbers right, one could agree that the dramatic drop in deaths of both Iraqis and Americans is a good thing.  Whereas we can all probably concur that if no one had been killed in one month would have been best, in a nation where a war is being waged, a low casualty count is encouraging news.

Beinhart goes on to acknowledge that the post-surge improvements are fragile:

Is the surge solely responsible for the turnaround? Of course not. Al-Qaeda alienated the Sunni tribes; Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army decided to stand down; the United States assassinated key insurgent and militia leaders, all of which mattered as much if not more than the increase in U.S. troops. And the decline in violence isn’t necessarily permanent. Iraq watchers warn that communal distrust remains high; if someone strikes a match, civil war could again rage out of control.

To a reasonable person, who has been following the progress of the war in Iraq, this statement makes sense.  One phrase, however, is disconcerting:

the United States assassinated key insurgent and militia leaders, all of which mattered as much if not more than the increase in U.S. troops.

Beinhart appears to directly contradict himself, here.  He seems to imply that a strategy of assassinating the key insurgent leaders would have had the same effect as adding the 30,000 plus troops on the ground (although his punctuation use might be including the impact of  Qaeda on the Sunnis and al-Sadr’s holding back his Mahdi Army also contributed).  So, which factor should be considered the basis for the dramatic decline in deaths, the assassinations or the troops?  To what degree did the one depend on the other for that decline?  Finally, can Bush be credited for the success, especially, as Beinhart insists, making a courageous decision?

Beinhart believes so:

But if Iraq overall represents a massive stain on Bush’s record, his decision to increase America’s troop presence in late 2006 now looks like his finest hour.

This statement, questionable as it is on so many levels given the now historical context of the Bush presidency, is only the prelude to Mr. Beinhart’s fatal flaw in his whole argument:

Politically, Bush took the path of most resistance. He endured an avalanche of scorn, and now he has been vindicated. He was not only right; he was courageous.

As my grandfather used to say, this is about as “cock-eyed” an interpretation as you could possibly get.  Here’s why: Beinhart ignores his own half-hearted attempts to describe the events and outcomes of the Surge within the context of historical reality and how George W. Bush’s decisions set those events and outcomes in motion.  Beinhart believes his own set of assumptions crafted from his political ideology and draws a conclusion that any sophomore college student taking Introduction to Logic could poke holes in after binge-drinking the night before.

Here’s my analogy.

Two gangs from opposite sides of town have been feuding for many years.  One gang, known as the Bushies, whose leader is called Decider, has grown very large and powerful.  None of the gangs on the other side of town, known collectively as the Easties, are as big or as powerful, but they supply the Bushies with “bling” and the Bushies use lots of it, need lots of it, and know that the biggest source of bling is across town.  The gangs have been feuding for a long time, but the rumbles have never been very long and the casualties limited.  The bling has continued to flow to the Bushies pretty much uninterrupted.

One day, Decider decides the time has come to have the ultimate rumble and take down the Easties for good.  He decides to take down the Baghdaddies first.  The Bushies hit the Baghdaddies hard, setting their neighborhood on fire and seem to get the upper hand pretty fast.  But the gangs in the surrounding neighborhoods feel threatened, and though they know they can’t take on the Bushies directly, they send their gang members to infiltrate the rumble.  Sometimes they help the Baghdaddies fight back; sometimes they set more of the neighborhood on fire, hoping to prevent their own turf from being torched.

The Bushies are taking a lot of casualties, even though the Baghdaddies are being killed in droves.  The burning neighborhood grows and grows, killing more gang members from both sides than the gangs themselves.

Decider doesn’t waver in his decisions.  Keep going.  Finish the feud once and for all with the Bushies on top.  The bling must flow.

Flash point.  The burning neighborhood erupts into a firestorm.  Decider’s gang lieutenants surround him and deliver an ultimatum.  The firestorm will destroy them all.  They must have help to put out the fire.

Decider, against every fiber of his being, relents.  He dials 911 and calls for the fire fighters.  The flames are soon extinguished.  Decider and his supporters trumpet the success of the rumble, and praise Decider for his courage to call 911 as the finest moment of his time as gang leader.

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There is a research principle that says when interpreting data, the most likely solution will be both simple and elegant.  It will be simple in that no other interpretation agrees so closely with the data, and elegant because it when applied it creates a satisfying unification with the other data in the theory.

And so, there is a conclusion that fits the evidence both simply and elegantly: The arsonist who first set the fire and then was forced to call 911 to save himself and an entire nation from being destroyed by those flames, Mr. Beinhart, was neither right nor courageous.