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Fight a dictatorship, and you must kill the regime; fight a democracy, and you must kill the people. Two years ago I called George W. Bush a “tragic character” (George W. Bush, tragic character, November 25, 2003) who “wants universal good, but will end up doing some terrible things.” Now we have begun the third act of his tragedy, which shatters the delusions that led him to the edge of disaster. President Bush met Nemesis in the form of Hamas, whose election victory in Palestine last week makes clear that democracy can empower the war party as well as the peace party.
The president’s first reaction on Thursday to Hamas’ electoral triumph constituted, perhaps, the most addled response of any US leader in history to a portentous event. He alternately praised “the power of democracy,” claiming that Palestinians had voted for better education and health care, but warned that demanding the destruction of one’s negotiating partner while maintaining an armed wing does not bode well for peace talks.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on Saturday rejected as “blackmail” Washington’s threats to stop financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. That neutralizes Washington’s only means to influence the new Palestinian government, short of shooting. In fact, Hamas will get money from Iran, and blackmail the Saudis for more. The Israeli-Palestinian problem has become de facto a second front in Washington’s confrontation with Tehran.
What will Washington do now? Professor Angelo Codevilla some years ago suggested “using military force to kill the regimes – the ruling classes – of countries that are in any way associated with terrorism,” noting that “the dictatorial regimes of the Arab world consist of some 2,000 men.” This sort of talk made Codevilla a pariah among the enlightened statesmen of the West, who expressed outrage over the Israelis’ occasional assassinations of terrorist cadre. Now, instead of a few thousand deaths, we now will have a bloodbath. Washington, as I often have warned,  has created a monster. Wars long delayed usually are the most devastating (see In praise of premature war, October 19, 2004).
The American public appears more decided than the Bush administration. A January 27 poll taken by Bloomberg News and the Los Angeles Times found that 57% of Americans favor military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, against only 33% opposed. The same poll found that 53% of Americans did not think the Iraq war was worth the while. Seventy-six percent of Republicans supported the use of force, as well as 49% of Democrats, and Democratic politicians are rattling sabers as vigorously as the administration. European leaders, as I observed last week, already have endorsed the use of force should negotiations fail.
Bush now has to be extracted from the corner into which he painted himself: how will Washington respond to popular governments chosen in free and fair elections who wish to inflict violence upon the United States and its friends?
This paradox has made minor celebrities out of a pair of political-science professors, who came out with the right book at the right time (Electing to Fight; for a summary click here). Jack Mansfield and Ed Snyder distinguish between “mature democracies,” which never, never start wars (“hardly ever,” as the captain of the Pinafore sang), and “emerging democracies,” which start them all the time, in fact far more frequently than do dictatorships. At a January 12 meeting of the Republican-leaning Cato Institute in Washington, Snyder introduced their tome as follows: 
President Bush says that America is safest when democracy is on the march … Over the past year, we’ve seen plenty of elections in the Middle East. It’s a big social-science experiment. The results are starting to come in. Most of them are pretty dismaying. The candidates who have been doing well in those elections are in favor of nuclear proliferation, in favor of pushing Israel into the sea, denying the Holocaust. They often have represented ethnic and sectarian communities rather than a broader public interest. In the Palestinian elections we’re expecting the Hamas terrorist group to do well. In Afghanistan, terrorists and drug lords did well in the elections.
No true democracy starts a war, according to US academic dogma, and no professor seeking tenure flouts a dogma. This is a variant of the No True Scotsman Fallacy beloved of logicians:
Argument: “Ach! No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Reply: “But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.”
Rebuttal: “Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
“Emerging democracies,” in the porridge of political scientists, are not “true democracies.” As Mansfield told the Cato gathering:
Out-of-sequence, incomplete democratization often creates an enduring template for illiberal, populist politics – for example, the cycling between military dictatorship and illiberal democracy in Pakistan, the theocratic populism of Iran, and ethnic tyrannies of the majority in many transitional states.
Among the examples of wars launched by democracies are:
Serbia (1991): civil war
Iraq (2005): Kurdish and Shi’ite militias, threat of civil war
Bosnia (1995): war with Serbia
Ethiopia (1998): Eritrean war
India and Pakistan (1999): Kargil war
Burundi (1993): Hutu genocide against Tutsi
Iran (2005): election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad
Indonesia (1975): East Timor independence movement
I do not recommend the book; what is true in it is trivial, and what is not trivial is silly. Not the book, but the book’s reception, is significant. Americans, contrary to their sanguinary image, do not like war, and need to talk themselves into it.
The silliest of all the Mansfield-Snyder arguments is the supposed cause of the United States’ invasion of Mexico in 1846. In 1846 (70 years after the Declaration of Independence!) the US still counted as an “emerging democracy,” in which political elites used the diversion of war to maintain power. If the United States in 1846 was not a “mature democracy,” was it a “mature democracy” in 1898, when it declared war on Spain in a grab for colonies?
Mansfield and Snyder write of the 1846 war, “The Polk administration used expansionist themes to revive the connection between the Democratic Party and its Jacksonian popular base, which had been badly damaged during Martin van Buren’s term as president.” But in 1846, Americans knew better than that. As I observed on another occasion (Victor Davis Hanson goes to the seashore, January 4) the commanding Union general and later president Ulysses S Grant wrote, “The occupation, separation, and annexation [of Texas] were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.” Grant was a moral and intellectual giant, underrated as a military leader (although Sir John Keegan helped set the record straight in The Mask of Command), who told his countrymen, “Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”
With all due respect, it is a disadvantage under present circumstances for the US president to be a Texan, and the secretary of state to be African-American. On three occasions, the United States has destroyed a significant part of an identifiable population. The first occasion was the reduction of its aboriginal population, often carried out in a brutal and dishonorable way. The second was the slaughter during the Civil War of nearly two-fifths of the military-age population of rebel provinces, the worst casualty toll in modern history. The third occasion was the incarceration of 10% of black American males, within the world’s largest prison population of more than 2 million. The US solved the problem of criminal acts by a disgruntled minority by decimating the minority, putting one out of three young black American males in prison.
Killing off the southern rebels was an act of heroism; incarcerating young American blacks was an involuntary reflex of the law courts. But American southerners still mourn their dead, and turn away from the evil purposes of their ancestors. American blacks still weep for a lost generation. Both suffered unspeakably from the consequences of cultural (or perhaps moral) failure, and compensate with exaggerated hopes for redemption. Former president Jimmy Carter, who tried to love the Iranians who took hostage American diplomats, is the most extreme example. The trouble is that most peoples are not redeemed – not, in any event, before they are reduced by war. President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are learning this the hard way.
Of all the leaders of the world, the pope is most committed to the hope of redemption as a matter of metier. For example, the Holy Father cannot say that there is no hope for Islamic reform. His predicament recalls the Israeli joke passed on by a correspondent in Boston, whose punch line states: “It is forbidden for a Jew to say, ‘There is no hope’! ‘No chance,’ maybe.”
In that spirit, Father Joseph Fessio, Pope Benedict XVI’s student and longtime collaborator, now has qualified his earlier report of the pope’s comments about Islamic reform at a seminar at Castelgandolfo last September. Fessio, as I reported on January 10 (When even the pope has to whisper) had told American radio interviewer Hugh Hewitt that Benedict had argued that the nature of Islamic revelation made Islamic reform virtually impossible. The transcript was posted on Hewitt’s website, but drew little attention before our account appeared. The sudden notoriety of the pope’s reported views on Islam drew into the fray commentators closer to the mainstream, including New York Sun columnist Daniel Pipes and Washington Times columnist Diana West, as well as a quasi-official Vatican blog, www.chiesa.com.
Now Fessio has made a formal recantation of his earlier report of the Castelgandolfo meeting, in a January 20 letter to the Washington Times, reposted on the www.chiesa.com site:
The most important clarification is that the Holy Father did not say, nor did I, that “Islam is incapable of reform” … I made a serious error in precision when I said that the Koran “cannot be adapted or applied” and that there is “no possibility of adapting or interpreting it.” This is certainly not what the Holy Father said. Of course the Koran can be and has been interpreted and applied … The presentation and the discussion were in German, and the Holy Father was not speaking from a prepared text. My German is passable, but not entirely reliable. My later remarks in a live radio interview were extemporaneous. I think that I paraphrased the Holy Father with general accuracy [emphasis added], but my mentioning what he said at all was an indiscretion, and my impromptu paraphrase in another language should not be used for a careful exegesis of the mind of the Holy Father.
I would like to set the record straight and avoid unnecessary embarrassment to the Holy Father. The truth is always crucial, but especially so here where the stakes are so high. I am disconsolate that I have obscured the truth by my ambiguous remarks.
It is dangerous to speak about such things in German. As the Student told Mephisto in Part II of Goethe’s Faust: “Im Deutschen luegt man, wenn man hoeflich ist” (“If you’re polite in German, you’re lying”).
Of course Father Fessio paraphrased the pope correctly. The overwhelming majority of Muslim theologians agree with the pope that Koranic revelation is fundamentally different from Christian or Jewish revelation, such that Islam cannot be reformed in the same way that Christianity or Judaism can be reformed.
To paraphrase another recantation: Eppur non si muove. The seminar at Castelgandolfo examined with magisterial depth the same issue treated with academic glibness at the January 12 Cato Institute meeting. But the conclusion is the same. The elites of the West cannot sit like the Greek gods on Olympus during the Trojan War, making book and rigging the point spread for their favorites. The tragedy of Islam’s confrontation with the West will unfold regardless, and wisdom lies in recognizing that we are in a tragedy, not a social-science experiment.
1. See They made a democracy and called it peace, March 8, 2005; The beast that slouches toward democracy, March 15, 2005; The Jihadis of Penzance, March 22, 2005; and Iran: The living fossils’ vengeance, June 28, 2005.
2. Webcast available here.