Apropos of Washington’s triumphal response to the high voter turnout in last week’s Iraqi elections, we should ask this simple question: why do political leaders believe that democracy fosters peace, despite innumerable examples to the contrary? History shows us that the broad electorate can be as bellicose as the most bloodthirsty tyrant. But there is a sound reason to equate democracy and peace; sadly, this argument has a fatal flaw.
The argument begins with a perfectly correct observation: decisions made by large numbers of people are more likely to be rational than decisions made by an autocratic clique. Madness may prompt a single tyrant towards war, but madness is unlikely to infect the whole electorate. This argument is perfectly true, and explains why democracy is better than autocracy.
The argument depends on the beneficent effect of random error. Within a given population there will exist a certain number of dangerous lunatics, but the delusions of lunatics are randomly distributed. One lunatic believes that the world will come to an end if spotted owls leave old-growth forests, another frets about an invasion of space aliens, and so forth. If the entire population is allowed to vote, the delusions of the various lunatics will cancel each other out, and voters with rational perceptions and real information will decide the outcome. That is why a broad and free market does a better job of setting prices than a central planning authority.
The trouble is that entire peoples frequently find themselves faced with probable or inevitable ruin, such that no peaceful solution can be found. Situations of this sort have arisen frequently in history, but never as frequently as today, when 90% of the world’s languages are not expected to survive the next century. A people facing cultural extinction typically will choose war, if war offers even a slim chance of survival.
Paradoxically, it is possible for wars of annihilation to stem from rational choice, for the range of choices always must be bounded by the supposition that the chooser will continue to exist. Existential criteria, that is, trump the ordinary calculus of success and failure. If one or more of the parties knows that peace implies the end of its existence, there exists no motive to return to peace. That explains why the majority of casualties in such wars are suffered long after all hope of victory has disappeared (see More killing, please!, June 12, 2003). Democratic governments are quite capable of taking such an apocalyptic direction.
That is why Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is the Islamic world’s preeminent democrat, telling the Islamic masses what they want to hear while the tyrants and autocrats of neighboring lands growl indistinctly through their American-made muzzles.
The landslide victor in June’s presidential poll, Ahmadinejad heads a new generation of elected fanatics. By the same token, Hamas represents the popular will in Gaza and the West Bank. A majority of Palestinian Arabs now support an Islamist party committed to destroying Israel by means of terror. Regarding the participation of Hamas in Palestinian elections, President George W Bush said earlier this year, “I think people who generally run for office say, vote for me, I’m looking forward to fixing your potholes.” The trouble is that the West Bank as a whole is a pothole, and not fixable.
Ahmadinejad’s threats to wipe Israel off the map and deriding as “myth” the murder of 6 million European Jews appeals to the Islamic electorate. Popular sovereignty in the Arab and Persian spheres favors the war party. The Iranian president grasps this elementary truth, which makes him a far more effective force in the Middle East than the Bush administration. As it is presently constituted, Iran has no future, and the Islamic world broadly faces a social crisis of lethal proportions (The demographics of radical Islam, August 23, 2005). Within the Islamic framework, war represents the sort of rational choice that popular majorities will embrace.
This is a very different argument from the “essentialist” claim that Islam, by virtue of the percept of jihad, must inevitably promote aggression. Without minimizing the dangers inherent in the notion of jihad, I believe the present war stems from the response of Islam to particular circumstances at a particular point in time.
Islam may harbor a predisposition towards conquest, but the closest parallels to Ahmadinejad’s are to be found in Europe and the US. On December 6 (Iran’s strength in weakness) I compared today’s Iran to Adolf Hitler’s Germany on the eve of World War II. Karl Marx observed that history tends to repeat itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce – or Farsi, we might say in Ahmadinejad’s case. But for Americans to promote the canard that democracy fosters peace must be the most extreme case of amnesia on record, for two democratically-elected governments fought the most destructive war in the history of the Western hemisphere.
The Confederate States of America arose through irreproachable democratic forms, with the overwhelming support of the populace of the southern states, who sent three-quarters of their military-age men to fight. In proportion to population, the 289,000 Confederate dead of 1861-1865 – one quarter of the military-age population – dwarf the million or so Iranian fatalities during the war with Iraq and seem trivial by comparison (6% of total population vs 2% of total population).
No war cabinet ever enjoyed more enthusiastic support than that of Jefferson Davis, and no modern people ever matched the Confederacy’s willingness to sacrifice for their ambitions. Yet the Confederacy was an evil proposition from start to finish, not merely because it wished to preserve the three-fifths of its net worth embodied in human chattels, but also because it proposed to create a vast slave empire in Latin America.  A slave economy based on cotton, which then ruined the soil in less than a decade, could not persist another generation without expanding its territory. The vast majority of Southerners did not own slaves, but hoped to get them through conquest. 
Iranians elected Ahmadinejad and American Southerners elected Jefferson Davis for what might be termed rational reasons. The South was running out of land; Iran is running out of young people as well as oil (see Demographics of Iran’s imperial design, September 13, 2005). Present-day Iran will cease to exist in a generation, as Ahmadinejad knows better than anyone. He has already proposed to relocate 30 million rural Iranians, half the country’s population, as the majority of villages become unsustainable in the declining countryside.
The same aspirations put a field marshal’s baton into the rucksack of Napoleon’s soldiers, and made Hitler a hugely popular war leader until Stalingrad. The Germans of 1939 wanted to be the Herrenvolk, enriched by slave labor and looted land. As I observed earlier this month, Hitler launched the World War II with the Fingerspitzengefuehl of a popular politician, telling his military commanders, “At no point in the future will Germany have a man with more authority than I. But I could be replaced at any moment by some idiot or criminal … The morale of the German people is excellent. It can only worsen from here.”
Popular majorities supported and sustained what arguably was the most ruinous conflict in Western history, the mutual annihilation of Sparta and Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Western political philosophy originates in the repudiation of the results of Athenian democracy by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. If the people are predisposed towards evil, no cast of philosophers will hold them back from destruction, however. Socrates, the martyr to the vengeance of Athens’ democrats, is not an oligarch, but rather an ironist, as Soren Kierkegaard argued (see Socrates the destroyer, May 24, 2004).
There is a school of thought, associated with the late Leo Strauss, according to which American democracy has enjoyed unique success because the political philosophers who founded it crafted a “low and broad” constitutional structure that thwarted the worst impulses of the demos. Not surprisingly, the constituency for this view is heavily populated by political scientists, whose sense of self-importance it flatters. An alternative view, which I share, is that for democracy to produce good results, first one must have a good people. America succeeded by creating ex nihilo a new kind of people, in whose hands self-government would have different results.
 See Happy Birthday, Abe: Pass the Blood, Asia Times Online, February 10, 2004
 Victor Davis Hanson made these observations about the warlike character of Athenian democracy in a September 30, 2002 column for National Review Online: “We associate democracies with peace, and thus think that it is hard to convince thousands of free citizens to support a war. But we need not despair about getting democratic approval for the action against Iraq. Herodotus wrote that it was easier to convince thousands of free Athenians than a few skeptical Spartan oligarchs to go to war. In fact, consensual governments have never been averse to fighting – read Thucydides’ account of how the frenzied Athenian assembly insisted that their generals invade Sicily. Indeed, once democracies get their blood up, free citizens – not their professional generals – prove to be the truly bellicose. Nicias the Athenian, George McClellan, and perhaps our current reluctant Pentagon hierarchy have all learned the peril of standing in the way of an aroused citizenry. Democracies are actually war-prone owing to their very moral conceit – their confidence in the superiority of their culture and system of government – and the ease by which a simple majority vote of their legislatures can instantaneously mobilize an entire society for war.” It is odd that the possibility never occurred to Professor Hanson that democracy in Islamic countries also might lead to stronger support for war, as it has in Iran.