Critical Stasis: A Reply to Barkawi

Tarak Barkawi’s critical reply to my article – wryly entitled “Scientific Decay” – raises a number of important concerns pertaining to democratic-peace theory, covert action, and Cold War ideology. Here, I take up three of what I believe to be Barkawi’s most important challenges: (1) decision-makers were not furthering democracy in the course of the interventions examined in my article, (2) there are multiple interpretations of democracy and I uncritically accept the procedural variant, and (3) covert action has significant implications for American democracy, none of which are addressed in my article. In each case, I will argue that Barkawi’s critique represents either a fundamental mischaracterization of my argument and/or a potentially valid, but ultimately unsubstantiated, concern.

Did U.S. decision-makers believe they were furthering democracy?

The first critique that figures prominently in Barkawi’s reply is that my argument equates the subversion of elected, leftist regimes with democracy promotion. Barkawi’s (2015:1) language is telling: “If, before they conduct an operation against an elected government, US policymakers reason that their actions ultimately further democracy, then political scientists can rest assured that these actions do not invalidate the Democratic Peace.” Such criticism betrays a fundamental mischaracterization of my causal logic. One of the key arguments I make is that regimes expected to backslide into authoritarianism are treated as non-democracies in the present (Poznansky 2015:3). As a result, democratic interveners are likely to treat democracies in decay as they would any other autocratic state. My argument says nothing, however, about the type of regime that democratic interveners will promote against decaying democracies. Just as there is variation in patterns of democracy promotion against bona fide dictatorships, so too should we expect variation against decaying democracies. The notion that US decision-makers thought they were saving democracy in Iran in 1953, for example – something Barkawi (2015:1) implicitly accuses me of arguing – is a red herring; no serious scholar would argue this. In effect, what Barkawi has done is to read into my argument an additional component—i.e. democracy promotion—that is simply not there.

Defining democracy

Barkawi’s second major concern is how I operationalize democracy. In the article, I throw my lot in with scholars that define democracy largely, though not exclusively, in procedural terms (e.g. free and fair elections, protection of civil and political liberties, etc.) (Poznansky 2015:3; see also Boix, Miller, and Rosato 2013; Cheibub, Gandhi, and Vreeland 2010). Barkawi (2015:2) contends that democracy is better thought of “as a project of popular rule”; see also Barkawi and Laffey 1999:407-409). I have no interest in staking out a “correct” definition of democracy; that is a task best left for political philosophers, who themselves disagree. There are, however, two issues at stake. First, Barkawi provides no substantive definition of what he means by “popular rule.” If by popular rule Barkawi simply means rule by the people, we would still need a definition that allows us to differentiate “true” democracies from dictatorships that claim to represent the masses, a rhetorical move frequently exploited by authoritarian regimes (e.g. People’s Republic of China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Absent a clearly articulated definition, one might reasonably ask where to draw the line. Would Castro’s Cuba, which claimed to represent the working masses, represent a project in popular rule? The same could be asked of Venezuela under Hugo Chávez. My intention is not to put words in Barkawi’s mouth by arguing that he would recognize these regimes as democracies. Rather, the point is simply that if we are to embrace alternative conceptions of democracy, scholars must be careful to define their terms explicitly.  

Even if we accept that democracy should be defined as a “project of popular rule,” was this the kind of future that prominent leftist leaders during the Cold War (e.g. Allende) envisioned for their countries (e.g. Chile)? Perhaps. The evidence provided in my article, however, casts doubt on such an assertion (Poznansky 2015:7). Allende’s close affinities with Castro, the Soviet Union, and a number of indigenous, militant organizations within Chile call into question his commitment to democracy broadly conceived; this is as true for popular rule qua democracy as it is for any of the procedural variants (see Gustafson 2007:22; Haslam 2005:30, 61-62). Put differently, even if we adopt Barkawi’s conception of democracy as our standard, my argument about democratic decay in the case of Iran (1953) and Chile (1970-73) still holds given the available evidence.

Covert action and American democracy

The final critique concerns the implications of covert action for democracy in the US. According to Barkawi (2015:2), covert operations “most certainly subverted democracy domestically in the United States. The main audience from whom the Executive Branch hid such secret operations were US citizens and their legislative representatives.” There are two distinct issues here, one empirical, one normative. In terms of the former, Barkawi may well be right that the primary rationale for going covert in many cases of intervention was domestic in nature. The problem, however, is that we would need evidence to substantiate the veracity of this claim. Not only does Barkawi fail to provide or cite such evidence but the existing literature has also cast doubt on the role of domestic politics as a driver of covert action in high-profile cases like America’s intervention against Allende (e.g. Downes and Lilley 2010:294).

The second component of Barkawi’s critique, that covert action undermined democracy in the US, is indeed an important normative question (see Beitz 1989; Huntington 1982:17-18). In this regard, however, Barkawi fails to grapple with the ways in which the use of covert action within the US has changed over time. In the wake of Watergate, for instance, Congress established the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and passed stringent legislation requiring that executives issue a Presidential Finding prior to authorizing a covert operation. The end result was greater legislative control over this hidden tool of statecraft (Daugherty 2004:25-27). Covert action’s relationship with American democracy is thus more complicated than Barkawi’s characterization lets on. This is not to say, of course, that the relationship between covert action, secrecy, and democracy should not be a major topic for debate; the recent controversies surrounding torture and the ongoing drone program are testament to the continued importance of the subject. It is to say, however, that if we are to engage in a serious discussion about such things, a much more nuanced understanding of covert action and its relationship with the state will prove necessary. In this regard at least, Barkawi’s critique does not take us far enough.

 

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