Burning down the house

My friend Clem is, and was, a talented farmer. We grew up together as boys and then became closer in college. He was a superb student and a gifted classicist. I believed he would surely attend graduate school and become a professor of Latin or Greek. I was stunned when he told me otherwise: he wanted to return to manage the family farm.

"It’s something I’m good at and like," he said, "and that’s what I’m going to do."

So I moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue my career, while Clem remained in Wisconsin and managed his very profitable farm. Eventually we lost touch with each other. But one day, many years after I had last seen him, he called to ask a special favor. "I need your help," he said. "I’m in a little bit of trouble. I want you to co-sign a loan. I need a little money."

I returned to Wisconsin and drove through the cool rolling countryside to Clem’s home, set out just below a hill named for his family. I couldn’t believe what I saw: acres of burned out farmland greeted me–and near a structure that had once been a barn he stood, hands in pockets, smiling in embarrassment.

"It’s a pretty simple story," he said. "I decided that this year instead of leaving some of my land fallow I would burn out the corn husks and let the ash seep into the ground. The next Spring I would sell wild berries."

Things didn’t turn out as he had planned. Clem started the fire–and burned out his fallow field, then acres of planted corn, a nearby stand of trees, the forest near the creek, then his barn, his two tool sheds and then his garage. He saved his house. As he stood, smiling sheepishly, he provided a solemn judgment: "Once you a start a fire," he said, "it’s almost impossible to stop it."

The Bush administration is now faced with much the same problem. Having urged democracy on the Middle East’s numerous single party regimes, the White House is finding it increasingly difficult to smother the smoldering embers they have sparked. While there’s no way to tell whether what they have enflamed will one day turn into a conflagration, it’s certain that what the White House believed would happen and what actually has happened are two different things.

The recent Iraq elections are a case in point. That the Bush administration would endorse the likely ascendance of Ibrahim Jaafari to the post of Iraqi prime minister seemed unthinkable just two short years ago, when a White House official opined that Jaafari and his Daawa Party were aligned to "the hardline mullahs of Iran". Now Washington has had to change its tune: the people have spoken and Jaafari is being described as a vibrant and honest leader.

The recent dust-up over Lebanon provides another example of how pushing for democracy can actually become a model for the law of unintended consequences. Having led an international outcry calling for Syria’s withdrawal and "free, open and fair elections", the Bush administration has belatedly acknowledged that the key to Lebanon’s future may well rest with Hezbollah–a movement the US has labeled a terrorist group. Much the same applies in Palestine, where Hamas is poised to win as much as one-third of the seats in the upcoming legislative elections. The jewel in the American crown, Egypt, might well be next: last week a Cairo demonstration marking the second anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq turned into an anti-government rally calling for more democracy.

Put simply, while the White House might understand the value of promoting democracy, they seem to have little understanding of history.

"There are people in this administration who seem to think that all you do is take two pills, go to bed, and when you wake up you’re Thomas Jefferson," Boston University political scientist Richard Norton Smith says. "But that’s not the way it works."

Democracy need not be a violent, or even messy business–but it often is. The history of this globe’s "great democracies" is soaked in blood, a fact often lost on my own citizens, who troop to the polls without remembering that the vote of a large segment of our population was secured only after half of their country was left in ruins, and 638,000 of its young men lay in shallow graves.

For all of that, Americans are believers in democracy, and for good reason. Fully apart from the jingoistic patriotism engendered by Washington’s latest love-fest with voting (and its thoroughly distasteful habit of deploying American kids to conduct "workshops" that purport to teach you "how democracy works"), building civic institutions answerable to the people remains the most credible reflection of political self-expression and national identity. The paradox for Washington, of course, is that the growing democracy movement in the Arab world holds out the best hope for true political independence–from the United States.

Just think of what might happen: the phrase "American-supported Arab regimes" would disappear from our language. And yours. It would finally cleanse my own country of the unutterable but unalterable truth that, for 50 years and more, we have unblinkingly supported corrupt single-family, single-party, single-leader governments that do not represent the will of their own people. George Bush arrogates this faith to himself, saying he is "confident" that the Arab peoples "are capable" of governing themselves. I agree. All we have to do is stand out of the way.