by Jeremy Young | 10/28/2007 04:07:00 PM
Josh Trevino is the vice president of a conservative think tank and the co-founder of Redstate (with which he is no longer affiliated). Despite these facts, I've always found Josh to be exceptionally thoughtful, well-spoken, and full of fresh ideas -- an individual, in short, for whom I have great respect.

In July, Josh posted an essay titled Turks and Tolerance (originally published in the National Review Online), which I reviewed in a (now-deleted) Open Thread at ProgressiveHistorians. While my comment was mostly favorable, I criticized Josh for his comment that "we should have enough experience with political Islam by now to regard it with wary skepticism until given reason to trust." Josh e-mailed me for a clarification of my views, and the result was a fascinating e-mail discussion that lasted over a month and touched on a wide-ranging variety of topics.

Josh has asked that I repost our correspondence here, and I do so now in the format of a conversation between the two of us, with light edits. I think it's a wonderful example of how two people from two differing political traditions can have a respectful, enjoyable, and enlightening discussion about political issues.

Josh Trevino: Do you believe that we don't have enough experience with political Islam to render judgment; or that our experience with political Islam is that this judgment is unjustified?

Jeremy Young: I don't believe it's political Islam that's necessarily at fault in many Middle Eastern countries, but the dictatorial governments that are in place prior to political Islam's ascendancy. We see the provocation for such governments in examples both new and old: in the Shah of Iran, and in today's Musharraf and Mubarak, among others. Treating political Islam as a monolith of evil results in the same sort of strategic miscalculations the U.S. committed during the Cold War: backing an ineffective leader like Mubarak who does not have the support of his own people is no better than funneling money to the Contras just because they were not Communist.

You acknowledged this in your original piece by inferring that political Islam in Turkey is better than Kemalist nationalism. I'm simply taking the next step and suggesting that we have no need to stereotype political Islam as being negative at all, despite specific examples such as Khomeini and the Taliban. Rather than viewing it with skepticism, I believe, political Islam should be viewed just like any other government, on a case-by-case basis based on its commitment to the betterment of its people.

Josh Trevino: Your point is well taken, although I differ from your assessment on two points:

First, political Islam is as proactive as reactive, and so its faults are not wholly, nor even mostly, the responsibility of its predecessors or enemies. The crimes of Hamas or the Iranian regime, for example, are not meaningfully the faults of the Israelis or the Shah. We should credit Islamists with the independent volition and sophistication that they undeniably possess.

Second, I am not sure that a "commitment to the betterment of its people" is a useful metric for the assessment of a government. Particularly where theocratic impulses are concerned, that commitment is undeniably strong -- by the lights of those impulses, anyway. The Saudis, for example, are extremely concerned with promoting that betterment -- by beheading, if necessary.

Bottom line is that the relevant metric is probably concurrence with our own stated values -- and the plain data of experience.

Jeremy Young: Regarding your first point, I suppose what I'm trying to say is that political Islam often doesn't become unduly restrictive unless it's brought in to replace an unpopular dictatorial government. It's the more virulent strains of political Islam that can most easily withstand political unrest or dictatorship; think of Moqtada al-Sadr maintaining an effective militia while the more moderate Sistani sat on his duff under house arrest by Saddam, or the increasing radicalization of political Islam in Chechnya as the more moderate elements are literally blown up. As a general rule, Muslims would prefer to see more reasonable leaders, rather than radical Islamists, overthrow their dictatorships; we saw that when the Iranians turned first to Mossadegh before moving reluctantly toward Khomeini. (The exceptions are in Palestine and southern Lebanon, where many Muslims view the moderates as ineffectual, and Afghanistan, which is a natural warlord state where the radicals managed to secure enough money to build a superior army to their neighbors' and then set about conquering everybody in sight.) So if we want to promote moderate political Islam, we should start by no longer propping up unpopular dictators, and then see if we can't make common cause with the moderate Islamists --something the Clinton administration did admirably in Iran, for instance.

As for your second point, it's an excellent one; when I said "the betterment of their people," I was thinking of Hugo Chavez, who has undeniably raised the standard of living for his people, but is opposed anyway by the United States for his geopolitical antics. (I personally consider him a buffoon, not to be taken seriously on the international stage, but would advocate a rapprochement with his government on the grounds that he has helped his people and remains popular at home.)

Josh Trevino: I suppose I'm not convinced that "moderate Islamists" really exist as a meaningful subset of Islamists in general. The only example that I can think of whom we could morally approve of (as opposed to live with in a realpolitik sense) may be the AK party in Turkey. Elsewhere, even the Iranian "moderates" whom you cite are still enthusiastic proponents of annihilating Israel; and any Islamic polity, by definition, will impose some manner of Islamic law, which is ultimately incompatible with our ideas of (classically) liberal democracy. Admittedly this may range from the horrors of the Taliban to the comparative liberality of the present Indonesian regime; but the fundamental contradiction always remains.

Agreed of course that autocrats are a poor investment on pragmatic and moral grounds -- but it does not follow from this that their alternatives are inherently better.

Jeremy Young: I think Mostafa Moeen could be realistically considered a moderate Islamist -- and I don't believe he wants to annihilate Israel, though I couldn't find his position online one way or the other (I don't read Persian, so I couldn't check out his blog).

And I'm not saying we should necessarily invest in Islamic regimes -- but neither do I think we have the right to dismiss them because they don't believe in classically liberal democracy. To me, the fundamental principle of democracy (not political democracy, but theoretical democracy) is the right of the people to choose whatever government they want, be that democratic, Communist, monarchist (as the Afghanis would surely have chosen had their king consented to return permanently), or Islamist. If the U.S. wants to support alternatives financially as we did in Serbia, I'm all for it; but we should also recognize the will of the people when it goes against us.

Josh Trevino: I think we're getting to the rub here, which is not so much about Islamism as it is differing valuations of classical liberalism and democracy. You appear to value the latter over the former, and I hold the opposite valuation. Am I misunderstanding you?

Jeremy Young: No, I think you've got it just about right, with the caveat that I'm talking about the idea of democracy rather than a specific governmental system. i.e., I think the U.S. should treat Hugo Chavez as a full partner because he's democratically elected and enjoys the authentic support of his people (even though I personally think he's a pompous windbag and a joke), while you, I take it, think we should continue to fund protests against him because he opposes a classically liberal government. Correct?

Josh Trevino: Leaving aside Chavez specifically, you're correct. I see democracy as a morally-neutral mechanism, rather then a prerequisite for just governance. In this, I agree with the Declaration of Independence: "[T]o secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." The primary purpose of government is to secure rights, and the legitimacy of its power is derived from popular consent. It's perfectly possible to have a monarchy (or even a theocracy) that secures those rights, and acts with the consent of the governed. Early America under the Constitution, in which only a few thousand per state actually held the franchise, fit this bill; as does modern Lichtenstein, in which the population recently voted to dramatically expand monarchical power.

The metric of our assessment of foreign regimes, then, should be that of the Declaration: do they secure the rights of the governed? Translating this into policy would indeed bring us into opposition to leaders with substantive internal support: Chavez and Putin come to mind. They may be popular, but they're also autocrats at best.

Jeremy Young: But we haven't gotten to the root of the matter yet, I don't think. More people can vote percentagewise under Chavez and Putin than could in early America, or for that matter in the loya jirga in Afghanistan. These leaders have popular consent in every sense of the word. Then you have individuals like King Abdullah of Jordan, who enjoys wide popular support and provides his people with virtually every right they could desire, except the right to vote. To me, Abdullah would also fall under the idea of democracy: if his people could vote, he'd be pretty likely to be elected.

In my view, the people's most sacred right is the right to choose whatever kind of government they want -- whether that means a left-wing regime like the Sandinistas or Chavez, a right-wing regime like Putin or (God forbid) Jorg Haider, or even a king like Abdullah. The only one of these leaders I think the U.S. should oppose is Putin, because he does not provide that most sacred right to a section of his people -- the Chechnyans. The rest, I think we should work with.

So I think the difference between us is that I feel the U.S. has no right to impose its view of government on other countries, while you feel the U.S. has a responsibility to advocate for a government that secures their rights. I don't think we differ significantly on popular legitimacy. Am I correct?

Josh Trevino: As an aside, and not that I'm an expert, I was surprised to find how many Jordanians were willing to disparage King Abdullah in private conversation. For what that's worth.

I dissent from your conception of "the people's most sacred right" on two counts: I believe rights are individually, not collectively, held; and the most sacred rights are therefore individual -- "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Now, I should admit that the Declaration appears to be of two minds on the topic, speaking first of men "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" in their capacity as men, not a collectivity -- and then, in the next paragraph, speaking of a "Right of the People" in a clearly collective sense. I interpret the latter as a shorthand for an aggregation of individual rights, as the posited endowment of the rights is explicitly individual; but I suppose there's room for disagreement there, especially given Thomas Jefferson's later idealization of "the people" at large.

All of this is to say that even if a government has popular legitimacy, "deriving [its] just powers from the consent of the governed," unless that government has as its purpose "to secure these [certain unalienable Rights]," we are not bound to respect it, except on grounds of plain pragmatism. So what we have here is a dual- criteria hierarchy for the moral evaluation of foreign regimes. I propose that the hierarchy, from best to worst, would look like this:

1) Popular legitimacy, securing rights -- e.g., UK, France, et al.
2) No popular legitimacy, securing rights -- e.g., Jordan, USA 2005-2006
3) Popular legitimacy, no securing rights -- e.g., Venezuela, Iran, Russia
4) No popular legitimacy, no securing rights -- e.g., Turkmenistan, Belarus

This places rights ahead of legitimacy, as it should be, I think, while acknowledging legitimacy's importance. Furthermore, as the given examples show, the gap between the second and third tiers is huge -- again illustrating the overriding importance of rights versus legitimacy. And, to return to the topic that started this exchange, I believe that Islamist regimes are almost always third-tier, with the AK party nearly alone in that milieu in having the possibility of being in the first tier.

Jeremy Young: Lots of good stuff here. First off, you don't have to worry that I'll hold Jefferson up against you; support for just about ANY idea can be found in Jefferson's writings someplace!

I'm not surprised about King Abdullah; there's a strong and growing Islamic nationalism building in that country, mainly from resident Palestinians but also from his own people who are tired of his collaboration with the West. It'll be interesting to see whether he's able to hold on to the reins of power without significantly changing his relationship with the United States.

We've identified another key difference between us, I think: I believe that rights derived collectively are more important, in most cases, than rights derived individually. That difference makes sense given that the authentic intellectual basis of Republicanism/conservatism is a libertarian impulse, while the authentic intellectual basis of Democratism/liberalism is a communitarian impulse (despite what "libertarian Democrat" Kos would have us believe, even if the Democatic Party becomes a temporary home for libertarians, their views will always be incompatible with liberalism/progressivism). As a self-described Crolian Progressive, I certainly fall toward the extreme of communitarianism.

Finally, regarding the hierarchy you propose, I would switch numbers 2 and 3 in value. That's why I see people like Chavez as less bad than someone like Putin. I would also be hesitant to say that the government of Iran has popular legitimacy -- I still think that if the U.S. hadn't made the catastrophic error of supporting Rafsanjani in the last election, someone more moderate would have been elected instead of Ahmadinejad.



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Blogger Ahistoricality on 10/29/2007 12:49 AM:

On first read, I'm more inclined towards Trevino's definitions and valuations than yours, Jeremy.

Read Mill's On Liberty lately?

Though I'm not sure that the discussion actually matters. Don't get me wrong: you're smart guys and the exchange is worth entering into the public record. But you're both postulating, it seems to me, the idea that our foreign policy is, in some way, the enactment of a set of consistent principles; and, as such, by making sense of which principles are key and which are subsidiary, that a meaningful shift in foregn policy might take place.

But you're a historian, Jeremy, and you should know better. Perhaps you haven't had enough international/diplomatic coursework yet, but foreign policy is a kludge, carried out by a Rube Goldberg device of a system, by people with deeply competing interests all supposedly "working together." The history of our relations carries immense weight, and pragmatics carries even more.

Long-term interests are the province of careerists, but rarely are top-level decisions made on that basis.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 10/29/2007 1:04 AM:

Ahistoricality, one thing that I strongly dislike about some historical interpretations is the idea that just because something hasn't worked before means it won't work now. Of course, when we're talking about situations over which we have limited control, that sort of analysis is very useful; for instance, if we're looking at going to war in an unfamiliar country and trying to unify and pacify people we understand very little about (as American policymakers were with Iraq in 2003), comparing that situatiion to Vietnam is an excellent predictor of what might happen.

But I don't believe that history teaches us that what we want to do can't be done; I think it teaches us how not to do it. For instance, if you're trying to secure American participation in a pathbreaking international organization, make sure you're in good health before you go speechifying around the country in its defense (a la Woodrow Wilson).

While I'll readily admit that I have less background in foreign policy than either you or Trevino, I don't think more historical information would in any way disprove my inclination toward ideological consistency with regard to international relations. Again, our lack of consistency in the way we treat nations -- intervening laudably in Bosnia while allowing an all-out genocide in Rwanda, or providing self-determination for the Sudeten after World War I while allowing Japan to take unilateral possession of Korea and the Shantung -- has been the very thing that has doomed our foreign policy in situation after situation. History shows that that Rube Goldberg mechanism is surprisingly hard to dislodge, but it also shows in my view that it absolutely must be dislodged if we are to have anything like international liberty or international peace.

As for agreeing with Trevino, you're welcome to; any position he articulates will be an intelligent and respectable one, regardless of whether or not I agree with it.

No, I haven't read Mill's On Liberty; my familiarity is with his economic work, and it's limited and from a few years ago.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 10/29/2007 1:50 AM:

Take a little time and read the Mill: it's one of the great articulations of rights and their limits. I became much more sympathetic to libertarians when I read it, I admit, so be forewarned: he is the classic liberal.

You're right of course: history doesn't mean something can never change. But it does establish some parameters which really do need to be taken into account. While I'm recommending books, Michael Hunt's Ideology and US Foreign Policy is going to be on your reading lists soon enough anyway: may as well get it over with.


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Blogger Jeremy Young on 11/28/2007 11:00 AM:

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