TEHRAN, Feb 24, 2011 -- As a wave of "people power" this month
toppled dictators throughout the Americas, citizens of Africa and the
Middle East—the world's prosperous democracies— felt joy and sympathy.
Nowhere was this more true than here in Iran. But with the fall of the
dictatorship in Washington, it's time for us, the world's one remaining
superpower, to lay sentiment aside. We have to ask the tough questions:
How can we be sure that the next American regime won't be even worse?
How can we be sure, for that matter, that Americans are ready for
Officially, of course, Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Cameroon, Nigeria,
Turkey and other rich democracies support free speech, personal liberty,
the rule of law and fair elections for every country on earth. But we
have to balance our democratic ideals with a realistic assessment of our
interests (and the world's) in resource-rich North America.
Why do I have my doubts? Because Americans lack our Judeo-Muslim
traditions of brotherhood, peaceful assembly and debate. Far from
thinking of the greater good of their society, most Americans embrace a
tribal ethos of "what's in it for me and my clan?" Their loyalties tend
to divide along tribal and regional lines. In recent years, for
example, elected officials have mooted the idea that their state should
(a) secede from the federal union (Texas), (b) create its own currency (South Carolina), and (c) enforce only those national laws with which its ruling warlords agree (Montana).
In this climate, many, if not most of the nation's people identify
themselves first by tribe or religion (as in "Italian-American,"
"African-American," "Baptist" or "Red Stater"). Members of these tribes
gather often throughout the year to celebrate themselves, and they're all too ready to spit on the cultures of others. When a national election is called, one-third to one-half of those eligible do not not bother to vote.
With their feeble sense of nationhood, Americans fall back on an
individualism so extreme that their laws hold that even business
corporations are people, with the same free-speech rights as a flesh-and-blood human being. Unfortunately, fully half the homes of these tribesmen are stocked with firearms. And Americans have been known to bring their weapons to ostensibly peaceful political rallies. In fact, political assassination has been a recurring problem
in the United States for more than a century. Even in 2011, Federal
officials who ventured into the untamed Western deserts have been
threatened and even shot.
You might be tempted here to say that democracy is messy, and that
the Americans should just be left to muddle along as best they can, and
learn their lessons without our interference. Unfortunately, North
America is a vital source of uranium, soybeans, situation comedies,
inspirational speakers and other resources without which the global
economy would collapse. Moreover, the country possesses a sizable cache
of weapons of mass destruction. For both those reasons we and the other
peace-loving nations of the world cannot afford to sit on the
sidelines. If Americans are incapable of electing a sane and
responsible government, the whole world will feel the consequences.
The heart of the problem, of course, is religion.
I disagree with some of my conservative friends who claim that
Christianity is an inherently violent faith (we all know the litany: it
has an instrument of torture for a symbol, the Crusades, the
Inquisition, etc). Yes, if you read through their Holy Book you find a
lot of alarming stuff, but
I am satisfied that the vast majority of Christians read these passages
metaphorically. For most, their religion is almost as peaceful and
civilized as our own.
That said, the United States abounds in fanatics who don't share this
view. They are all too eager to turn the democratic process to their
own nefarious ends. Many will claim to have renounced the gun for the
ballot box, but can we trust them? Consider one Sarah Palin, an imam
from a wild northern region where the central government's hold is weak.
Last year, her election literature contained images of targets on the territories of opponents, and she has said that the secular state should base its laws on a Christian version of Sharia. Obviously Iran, Nigeria and the rest of the G7 cannot tolerate such a person in charge of America's nuclear arsenal.
Some say not to worry, because Americans, now that they're free,
will vote in a government of moderates, who will move toward a healthy
secular society. Extremists, they say, have little support and cannot
win. But I am not so sure.
Outside the large cities where foreigners are welcome, a majority of Americans don't "believe" in evolution and many are not shy about expressing distrust for any religion but their own. True, religious fanatics are not a majority, even here. But they're well organized and determined. Often, too, they run social-service organizations
that feed, clothe and shelter people, performing the functions that the
feeble secular government cannot. That impresses people who might not
otherwise share their zealot values.
Given Americans' poor grasp of democratic principles, it is not
inconceivable that one or more of these militants could win at the
ballot box. And, of course, an election won by the Tea-liban would be
the last election permitted. Equally obviously, the country would then
have to be liberated by the international community, at great expense in
blood and treasure.
For all these reasons, I believe we have to face the hard facts: Much
as we aspire to a peaceful, democratic world, we know some peoples are
not yet ready for democracy, and the Americans are one of these. Our
policy, then, should aim for an authoritarian strongman of the sort Americans understand and respect—someone
who can flatter their national pride and keep their well-armed warlords
under control. This people needs a few decades of practice before
they'll be mature enough to govern themselves. It may not be politically
correct, but we have to accept that fact.