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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cannibals

The chaos in Egypt has brought forth pious praises of democracy. "So what if the Muslim Brotherhood seizes power," the pundits ask, "as long as there are democratic elections." But what is the virtue of democracy anyway?

The one fundamental virtue of democracy is that it is the widest possible means of distributing power within a system. And that leads to a system that is only as good and bad as the sum of its voters. It is possible to have a democracy of cannibals, so long as the majority agrees that's the way to go. Or a democracy in which a quarter of the population has no legal or civil rights whatsoever. So long as that is the expressed will of the majority.

Democracy is a tool. It is a means, not the end. During the Bush Administration, democracy was treated as an end. The embedded assumption was that the average Arab-Muslim wanted the same things we did. A condensed version of the American Dream with jobs and freedom for everyone. And when given a chance at a voting booth, tyranny and terrorism would blow away like smoke, as a liberated electorate would choose leaders who would give them these things.

That universalization of the American Dream is part of the immigration narrative. It's a powerfully appealing idea complicated by an uncomfortable reality. The reality that much of the rest of the world may not see things the way we do. They may want the same things, but they don't want the same way or on the same terms. Our narrative tangles material success with political freedom. Theirs associates material success with honor and public order. The American Dream is not the same thing as the Muslim Dream. The conflict is apparent in the Clash of Civilizations. If we use our democracy to protect the American Dream, they will use theirs to protect the Muslim Dream.

As a means, democracy is only a tool for distributing power. And even our own country is torn apart by deep divisions over how that power should be distributed. The entire ObamaCare debate, the gap between rights and entitlements, is a continuation of an ongoing 20th century debate over what the 'end' of government should be. Such debates are fairly rare outside of a handful of Western countries. The assumption throughout most of the world is that the role of government is to regulate everything for the benefit of the public. Even the current unrest in the Middle East is driven less by human rights, and more by frustration over the failure of regional governments to maintain low food and fuel prices. (It seems like quite a contrast when compared with the Tea Party, which protests to demand less regulation.)

Those for whom the distribution of power is a means not an end, will exploit democratic elections as a means, while still imposing authoritarian rule. Islamist movements have exploited populism to get to power, but their philosophy of power is not populist, it is still top-down rule. That is the problem with democracy, you do not need to believe it in order to make use of it. It is not a covenant or a philosophy, only a means to an end.  

Like most tools, democracy is only as good as those who use it. The bloc vote undermines the distribution of power, and as common as it has become in the United States, it is far more common in tribal societies where families vote as they are told to by their leader. You can give people the vote, but you can't make them think for themselves. And the celebrations of democracy in the region have had less to do with the individual exercise of the franchise, than the power of the collective group the voter is there to support, the tribe and the religious faction. Not all Americans vote as individuals, but the individual vote is far rarer in the Muslim world, where the group identity has a way of smothering any inkling of individualism.

In such a system, parliaments boil down to glorified tribal councils. Their function has more to do with grandstanding, than legislating. The actual decisions are made behind the scenes by power brokers who solicit the support of the leading factions, and then give their marching orders to the legislators. Parliamentarians in the Muslim world deliver impassioned speeches, denounce each other and fight for their party. Rather than elected representatives, their role is to serve as the cheerleaders for the powerful families who make the actual decisions. You can witness that same sound and fury in Pakistan. Turkey or Russia, men who have no decision-making power working themselves into a lather to retain their place in the 'mafia' that actually runs the country.

What does democracy mean in such a system? A power shift. The general public can never rule and doesn't want to. What it wants is cheap food and fuel, jobs and security, and for things to be the way they were in their grandfather's time. When the government stops giving them those things, it will rise up long enough to replace it with another. It will still be a tyranny, but like almost every tyranny, it still needs public support to stay in power. The uprisings are a reminder that if people don't have food or money, they can always replace one government with another. Or at least die trying. Democratic elections allow them to accomplish this with a minimum of violence. That is one other virtue of democracy. But the end result is still tyranny.

The American system makes it very difficult for even democratic elections to undo Constitutional rights. But the Constitution of the Muslim world is the Koran. And it can only be temporarily repressed, not undone. It is always waiting around the corner, promising an answer to everything. The Koran is not that old by the standards of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism or Hinduism-- but it is still far older than Arab nationalism. It is younger than the tribes and the families, but older than their collective memory. The Koran with its narrative of tribalism in the service of Islam defines the Muslim, as much as the 4th of July with its narrative of armed independence against government authority defines the American. In times of turmoil, it is to Mohammed, and the Koran's narrative of him as a religious visionary fighting against a corrupt leadership, that the Muslim turns to. Is it the model that is embedded in his culture and will always be there in his politics.

The idea is simple enough. Hand over power to the right divinely chosen leader and sit back and watch society get put in proper order and the infidels cower. In societies with widespread illiteracy and deep rooted cynicism about politicians, the Islamists always seem like a good solution. Figuring out what political parties actually stand for is difficult, especially if you can barely read. But all the Islamists have to do is wave a copy of the Koran. Even if the average Egyptian has hardly read the Koran, he is for it. How could he not be for it, it is his religion. Given a choice between a tangle of Arab Socialist parties and the Koran, it's not much of a competition. The Socialists and the Islamists both promise family benefits, and the usual bread and circuses. But the Islamists also promise to restore morality and honor by putting everyone from independent women to Christians to Israel and America in their place. That's how the Koran spells a winning ticket.

Like all tools, democracy is defined by its users. Give a gun to a maniac and he will shoot up a store. Give it to a responsible man, and he will use it guard his home. The difference is not in the gun, but in the values of the wielder. Offering democracy to the Muslim world will not reform it. Its tyrannies are not the problem, but a symptom of the problem. If the Muslim world were truly ready to reform, it would have already reformed itself by now. And all the Soros front groups and US and EU funded grass roots organizations won't change that. Their 0.001 percent of angry college students will provide the impetus and legitimacy for what will turn into an Islamist takeover. That's democracy for you.

Governments are defined by the values of their people. No tyranny that is completely at odds with the values of the people it rules over can remain in power for long. Alexander the Great was one of the first world conquerors to understand that. His generals did not just conquer, they integrated. Foreign kings could rule over countries, but only so long as they integrated into the values of the country they governed. A dynasty that failed to do so was doomed. Whether it was the line of Herod, the Holstein Czars or the Muhammad Alis of Egypt. Democracy accelerates the process by which unwanted rulers are removed, but does not profoundly change it, unless it is accompanied by the conscious exercise of representative rights by the electorate.

The Bush Administration was far too enchanted with democracy as an end, to realize that it was only a means. In the hands of a people who believe that all men are created equal, it can be a tool of ownership. But in the hands of those who only use it to protest or as a shovel to direct the flow of money to their group, it has no moral standing. It is not inherently any better than tyranny, only slightly different.

Will Ethanol Do Stuff to My Breakfast?

Ethanol has proven to be an inadequate solution to the problem of foreign oil, but it has toppled at least one Arab ruler and may not be done yet. The Soros backed college students and the Islamists have done their part in the protests, but the Tunisian and Egyptian mobs would never have made their showing without a goad. And the goad was high wheat prices. Part of the spike in wheat prices was due to the shift to ethanol production.

Remember when Americans were lining up with cans of gasoline during the OPEC oil boycott? Arab Muslims are now in the same boat, except with bread, rather than oil. Arab countries are frantically buying wheat, especially after the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Regime stability in the Middle East is now tethered to wheat prices. The Arab has prided itself on the power to pressure America using the price of oil, but the United States has now proven that it can do the same thing to the Arab world with the price of wheat. The price of oil may be climbing in America, but in Saudi Arabia the price of wheat is up by more than half.

The Arab-American relationship was built on a power inequity. They had a resource that we needed. But now we have a resource that they need even more badly. While you can do a lot of things with oil, you can't eat it. And while Americans may get angry when oil prices go up, unlike the Arabs, we don't overthrow the government. Of course anyone can grow wheat. China and India are the world leaders in wheat production. Behind them, Russia, America, Australia and Canada. But Russia has just stopped exporting grain. China uses most of its wheat domestically too but is ramping up export production. Wheat however is only one commodity. There are others.

The Arab Muslim world has held American foreign policy hostage using the one commodity they had that we needed. But as a side effect of their own terrorism, we adopted a course that unintentionally spiked up the price of a commodity they needed. They acted as if violence and chaos could only benefit them by driving up the price of oil, but the rising price of wheat is blowback. We of course did not set out to hammer the Muslim world with ethanol subsidies (though a smarter and cannier administration might have done that) and that is the beauty of it. Instead while trying to untangle ourselves from foreign oil because of their behavior, the net effect was to demonstrate their own instability.

It's more than a lesson in the interconnectedness of the world in the age of globalism. It is also a reminder that we may have more power than we realize. We don't need to invade a country and then occupy it for years at the cost of billions of dollars and thousands of lives. As it turns out we can topple regimes even faster with ethanol subsidies. Of course this isn't actually a solution. Wheat prices hit the poorer Arab countries the hardest. That being the countries without the oil. The net beneficiaries of populist protests will be the Islamists. And wheat won't be a permanent lever. China will ramp up its wheat production more aggressively in response to higher prices. We lack the wheat equivalent of OPEC to function as a price setting cartel. And the current conditions which brought together droughts in China, flooding in Australia and ethanol subsidies in America are close to unique. But what they do is show our power.

Ethanol is controversial on the left because it raises food prices and controversial on the right because it is built on subsidies and regulation. As a substitute for oil, it's inadequate, but as an economic weapon it raises certain possibilities. The United States is an economic superpower, but that is a power we rarely leverage. While the Muslim world has conducted a multipronged assault using lawfare, economic warfare and proxy terrorist groups-- we responded with charm offensives and massive armed offensives. But it can't hurt to take a page out of their book. To also use more subtle weapons. Including economic warfare. And as has already been demonstrated, price volatility can have a more explosive impact than a bomb.

The Muslim world has a small upper class, a sliver of a middle class and a huge underclass. While the trappings of the 21st century are there, from cell phones to the internet, there is more than a slight whiff of the feudal about the whole arrangement. Tyranny and brutality won't upset the applecart, but food availability does. (Medieval revolts were often triggered by high food prices.) What a feudal system needs above all else is stability. The illusion of a timeless order. A way of life in which change does not even exist. Instability is like lighting a match in a crowded room filled with fumes. And we have already seen what that match can do.

Arab Muslim rulers have bought peace at home by exporting their surplus populations and their terrorists to America and Europe. They have spun hateful fantasies about America and Israel to direct the anger of their own citizens away from the government. And we have been paying the price for it. Their artificial stability fuels our terrorism and the rape gangs and murders in our cities. The blowback from their terrorism has rebounded against them before. But always in a limited way. And with plenty of warning. This time though there was no warning. Just an economic tidal wave headed their way.

The rise in the price of wheat has hurt Americans. Particularly working families. But it has hurt the Muslim world far more. With the Obama Administration's continued commitment to ethanol subsidies, wheat prices are likely to keep on rising. And even with a Republican congress, that may not change significantly, because subsidies develop an interest based appeal of their own. Iowa is a swing state and ethanol is big business. The ethanol tax credit and tariff went through the Senate in December at 81 to 19 and 277 to 148 in congress. Throw in a cold winter and wheat prices are only going to keep rising.

In 2007-2008, Egypt saw major food riots break out. As did Yemen, Somalia and Bangladesh. The UN and the Davos summit have already issued urgent warnings about political instability due to food prices. The Islamists and Soros' boys have successfully piggybacked on this year's food riots, making it seem as if they had a massive following in the streets and a mandate for change. They succeeded in Tunisia, but Egypt is still up for grabs. But whoever replaces the dictators will not do any better. The Muslim Brotherhood wants to burqa all the women and start a war with Israel. That will certainly make the average Egyptian temporarily forget about the price of bread, but will make matters much worse.

Pushing women out of the workplace is economically feasible in Saudi Arabia, wallowing in its own oil. It's feasible in generally rural Afghanistan or Gaza which lives off foreign aid anyway. But it doesn't even fly in Iran and would mean economic disaster for Egypt. Cutting ties with America and beginning an expensive war with Israel wouldn't reduce the population much, but would cost a whole lot, and unlike 1967 and 1973, the Russians won't be footing the bill. And what would the price of bread look like then?

The Islamists have two weapons on their side. Oil and the birth rate. But the former can't be eaten and the latter must eat.

All Hail the Messianic Wonder

Obama the magic donkey rider is seen meandering into Cairo to take possession of his new emerging kingdom, the land of Egyptobama.
From there he will reign as Tutankobuma the First with his wife/sister Michelle at his side.
All the Arab world will rejoice as they see him enslave all the Egyptians and put them to work on  his palatial estates and temples where they will dutifully and slavishly worship him as he desires.

It is a glorious thing to behold.
All Hail the glorious leader.

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