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Author lectures on democracy

Carolyn Hutyra | Thursday, January 17, 2013

In an area plagued by conflict, a push toward democracy may appear reasonable, but when dealing with the Middle East, some question whether such tactics are actually a mistake. Author John Agresto presented his views on the issue at a lecture Thursday night supported by the Kellogg Institute and the undergraduate minor in Constitutional Studies Program.

Agresto began his lecture with a story that involved his first journey to Iraq in 2003. He recalled a conversation he had with the dean of one of the colleges of science at the University of Baghdad. This man could not understand why Americans were truly present in Iraq. Agresto said that though he could not speak for everyone, he believed Americans were present to help.

“[The man replied] no one leaves home and country and family to go to another country to help. It’s unnatural,” Agresto said.

Working as a civilian for the Pentagon in Iraq from 2003 to 2010, his views changed significantly over time. Entering the nation, he said he was a strong believer of U.S. efforts and thought a democratic system could successfully be transported to the Middle East.  

“We managed to help many of the formerly occupied nations of Eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere become viable, stable, and free democracies. Taking nations from autocracy and tyranny to some variety of freedom and democracy seems quite normal to us Americans,” he said.

A life of freedom seems natural to the American people, yet Agresto pointed out that a transfer from autocracy to democracy could not successfully materialize in the Middle East.

“Because I tended to believe that all people yearn for freedom and deserve to govern themselves I thought that what we were attempting was good for Iraq and all Iraqis,” he said.

Agresto said he wanted to see a democratic nation rise from the ashes of tyranny. His thoughts were that an international friend was forming and perhaps also an ally for America.

Agresto also thought a liberal democracy would bring peace to the region, but the gap between expectations and reality only lengthened.

“There were political parties and elections and the writing of a constitution, but the peace, the toleration, the personal liberties, the moderation of violent passions that we hoped would follow in the wake of democracy’s advent seemed to be further away than ever,” Agresto said.

Something was clearly wrong. Democracies, recognized as the pillar of American foreign policy and a most desirable form of government, were failing to materialize in the Middle East.

Agresto said a more democratic Afghanistan was recognized yet not one Christian church, charitable organization or school remained in the country.

“Perhaps one might want to look at the democratic mobs in Libya executing all blacks they capture, men and women,” he said.

Agresto marveled at how so many could continue to support a view of democracy in the Middle East that was producing results contrary to the standard concepts of freedom, security and peace commonly attached to the system.

“I think our understanding of government was defective,” he said. “What we are learning the hard way in the Middle East is that there is little in politics harder to create than just and stable democracy.”

The success of democracy in the U.S. has perhaps led Americans to think that government can simply be willed into being, he said. A liberal democracy that is just is a challenge to create and even harder to maintain.

“Nothing takes more art, more human effort and more intelligence to design than a good democracy,” he said.

Agresto said especially in the Middle East people want to hold onto their customs and traditions. Americans may wish to say that all people deserve freedom, but that all people desire it is flat out wrong.

Agresto then posed the question, “Don’t all people yearn for freedom?” He said the assumed answer was yes, but the real one was no.

He said some people hold other goods in higher esteem. For instance, some value holiness, safety and instruction over freedom. Some cultures are not conditioned to build a free and liberal democracy, he said. 

“Democracy, we need to understand, is rule by the people. Democracy, more than any other government, takes on the character of its people,” Agresto said.

A nation that is intolerant or radically sectarian cannot form a successful democracy Agresto said. He said if there is no patriotism, no real love of neighbor, no willingness to compromise then a democracy is close to impossible.

“Freedom and democracy have political, social, and cultural preconditions,” he said.  

There are nations in which such preconditions are absent. Agresto said the protection and growth of liberty requires certain institutions and political arrangements. Political monitoring is necessary, and majority decisions are required in order to run a temperate, tolerant and just system.

“Culture, especially religious culture, can make or break the prospects of democracy,” Agresto said.