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Tuesday, December 13, 2021

 
ON READING George Packer's "Assassin's Gate"

If you believe it's in your interest, in the long term, to see democracy, or democratization, take root everywhere in the world, and if neither direct military intervention nor laissez-faire liberalism are options,then you ought to be devising long-term strategies to encourage the peaceful evolution of those nasty regimes toward something resembling democracy. It can be done. The Eastern European example, as complex and unique as it is, stands as one possible approach. Yes, the Soviet empire was surrounded and contained by western military might, but the iron hand was wrapped in a velvet glove. It was poised over the nuclear button but it also signed non-proliferation agreements and trade deals and human rights pacts, and supported peaceful dissent from within and exile communities from without. It issued invitations to dissidents to attend parties in its embassies; it showed the flag at the trials of dissidents; it served notice to those regimes that they were being watched, judged, and found wanting. At the same time, those regimes, inevitably, were themselves evolving, partly because you can only suppress change for so long, and partly because relentless but principled objections to a repressive status quo give courage and hope to those inside the regime working for change. What destroys totalitarian and dictatorial regimes – as Vaclav Havel pointed out more than thirty years ago – is their quixotic effort to arrest change. So the best strategy is to look for ways to encourage real change.
Speaking of Havel, Packer mentions something I did not know, but which does not surprised me: In 1991, Kanan Makiya, the exiled Iraqi author of "Republic of Fear," a harrowing book on the awful inner workings of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s, had issued, with other Iraqi intellectuals living abroad, something called Charter 91. It was deliberately modelled after the Czechoslovak human rights manifesto, Charter 77. Packer writes: "Makiya was something I’d never encountered – an Arab dissident in the manner of Havel or Solzhenitsyn. Charter 91 was a manifesto calling for a democratic and secular Iraq – a ‘Republic of Tolerance.’ Once, when Makiya and I were talking about the relativism that had taken over liberal political philosophy, he suddenly said, in his disarmingly direct way, with his apologetic smile: "I’m a universalist." He identified with Europe’s eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Human rights, he said, were an absolute that would have to be the foundation of a new Arab world – a new Iraq."
Later, Packer ran into Makiya in Baghdad in the gathering chaos after the defeat of Saddam. Makiya was still dreaming and working for his enlightened vision of a federal, democratic Iraq, but by now, sadly, Packer found that he had become something of a laughingstock among Iraqis who had never left the country. It's the fate of many a returning exile, and it will pass, but it also illustrates the vast gulf that lies between a good idea and its implementation.

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