A couple of years ago I read Donald Kagan’s Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy and was very disappointed. The birth of democracy wasn’t anything like I had envisioned. In retrospect, though, it does say something about our dilemma in Iraq.
Somehow I had always imagined Pericles as a Classical Age Founding Father, sitting down and drawing up a constitution for the people of Athens in order to maximize the public good. The truth was quite different. Pericles was locked in a power contest with the aristocratic faction of Athens and democracy was the outgrowth.
At the beginning, Athenian democracy was little more than a council of elders that had replaced the tyrannical rule of Pesistratus and his sons — something very much along the lines of the Roman Senate. Pericles, who had ascended to power through his own charismatic qualities, found himself in constant conflict with the aristocracy and under the charge that he was becoming a tyrant himself. In order to counter these accusations, he continually broadened the franchise, wiping away restrictions that excluded most of the population from participating in the voting process. Naturally, these newly enfranchised citizens supported him, mainly out of gratitude for being included in the process.
There was nothing generous or idealistic about it. But the result was that out of Athens’ 250,000 residents, more than 30,000 ended up participating in the democratic process. Seven-eighths of the populace — women, slaves, the propertyless, and all kinds of other outsiders — were excluded. But in the end, the city had created the democratic institutions that became the core of Western civilization. As James Gardner wrote in reviewing the book for National Review, “The importance of Periclean Athens consists not so much in its having been a summit of civilization as in its being the earliest moment in which we can recognize ourselves.”
There’s a lesson here, and it’s not the one that usually inferred. We all know the dreary litany of criticisms aimed at America’s Founding Fathers — “Why didn’t they abolish slavery? Why didn’t they enfranchise women? Why didn’t they protect the environment?” — ad nauseam. But the important thing, as anyone with a smidgen of intelligence knows, is that they started a process that could easily be expanded to include other people and other issues.
The Founders were well aware of this themselves. At one point, when the Convention was almost breaking up over the division between the small and large states, James Madison argued:
In framing a system we wish to last for ages, let us now lose sight of the changes the ages will bring. Isn’t it likely that the large territories to the West will one day be populated and may overshadow the former colonies? The distinction between small and large states will eventually fade with the growth of the union.
Over the decades and centuries, the American Constitution was expanded not only to include new states but also the propertyless, former slaves (who had been liberated), women, 18-year-olds, and now even perhaps former felons or guest workers and illegal immigrants. The same pattern was followed in British democracy. The Magna Carta, commonly acknowledged as the original Bill of Rights, at first extended only to a few noblemen. But once the process was set in motion, it could eventually be extended to the entire population.
The important thing is to have a core of people to start the process. All the Founding Fathers were really doing was applying the principles of reasonable debate and majority voting to their own differences. This was not easy in a situation where most of the delegates’ first loyalty was to their home states and those states were inherently unequal in size. But they succeeded and the United States of America was the result.
SO WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE us with in Iraq and the Moslem world? Well, it’s not hard to see. In Iraq and the Middle East there are no core of democratic institutions — not even the smallest variety — on which to build representative government. The Golden Age of Pericles was ushered in by the defeat of the Persian army, dispatched by an autocratic empire headquartered in what is now Iraq. Since that time, Middle Eastern potentates have been trying to plant autocracy in the Mediterranean basin, just as the West has been trying to plant democracy in the Middle East. Neither has been very successful.
After the Greeks fought off the much larger Persian army, Herodotus attributed the victory to Greek freedom. “Free men fight better than slaves,” he wrote in The Histories. But when Xenophon helped lead an army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries into the Valley of the Tigris and Euphrates a few decades later, they suffered an ignominious entrapment and were forced to fight their way all the way back to the Black Sea and beyond. This back-and-forth of invading armies has persisted in one form or another ever since.
What does all this say about our current involvement? It says we shouldn’t be too disappointed if democracy doesn’t work in Iraq. Islam is an authoritarian, Imam-and-strongman-ridden society in which democratic institutions have never put forth even the tiniest blossoms. There isn’t much reason for change now. The emergence of a middle class may seem promising, but much of that middle class seems intent on continuing the long tradition of violence — as witnessed by the many volunteers with advanced scientific and engineering degrees who fill the jihad ranks.
What this means, I think, is that we can pull out of Iraq right now with the confidence that the worst is not going to happen. The common perception is that as soon as we leave, an Al-Qaeda-influenced government will come to power that will turn Iraq into a headquarters of international terror. I don’t think it will happen. Instead, the Sunnis and Shi’ia will fight to the death — as they have for some thirteen centuries — until a militant ayatollah or despotic general emerges, the latter of whom would probably bear a strong resemblance to Saddam Hussein.
Then we will be back to square one, with our oil supplies hanging precariously in the balance. But Iraq will not become another Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden would find too many radical factions and would end up warring with his neighbors before he could launch any grant new attack on the West.
Russian Communism was a bastardized version of this Oriental despotism, willed to the Russians by the Tatars. The Fall of Communism did not end this autocracy. In many ways, it seems to have strengthened it. But it did puncture the Russian people’s messianic certainty that their system was destined to conquer the West.
We do not have to plant democracy in the Middle East in order to achieve the same goal. All we have to do is puncture the myth that “There is no God but Allah” and that Muslims are destined for world conquest. By toppling Saddam Hussein, by decimating Al Qaeda, and by stemming the tide of terror against the West, we have already gone a long ways toward reasserting our hegemony. As for the future of Iraq, let the Sunnis and the Shi’ia fight it out for themselves.
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