366. "USA Can't Impose Democracy on Afghans." USA Today (October 10, 2001) p 15A.


With the best of intentions, numerous U.S. public officials are busy plotting the future of the Afghan government and society. They should recall that social engineering is a vastly underdeveloped art. The United States tends to greatly overestimate its ability to bring democracy and development to countries with little experience -- or taste -- for either.

President Bush has called for a massive "reconstruction and development" effort for post-Taliban Afghanistan, comparing it to the Marshall Plan that helped reconstruct Europe after Word War II. Sen. Joseph R. Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for a multibillion-dollar program that, among other things, would bring Afghanistan secular schools, the "restoration" of women's rights and the introduction of full-service hospitals and medical clinics throughout the country. He also wants to ensure that the nation will experience "stability."

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., joined many others who are calling for a broad-based government, including representatives of all of the major tribes and groups that would represent "all the Afghan people."

A Marshall Plan sounds like a great idea -- until one recalls that it worked in Europe largely because the societies involved had previously been fully developed and modernized, had highly educated people and were very keen to become industrialized societies again. Thus, we could lift them up, so to speak, so they could walk on their own feet again.

But Afghans have nothing of the sort to stand on. As the bitter experiences of huge investments by the World Bank and U.S. foreign-aid programs have taught us in country after country -- most more endowed than Afghanistan -- jumping a society from the Stone Age to even a relatively modern one is a daunting task at which we are bound to fail.

The notion that we could bring about a truly representative government is a noble one. But we should take note that democracy is a plant that is exceedingly difficult to export and thrives in very few parts of the world. As a reminder of the severe limitations of political engineering, think about the 15 former Soviet republics we once hoped to democratize -- all much better prepared for our system of government than Afghanistan.

If we somehow succeeded in forming a truly representative government in Afghanistan, I doubt it would favor any of the programs Biden et al. want to bring to this rugged country. Secular schools are unlikely to be high on the shopping list of any of the tribes involved. I am all in favor of women's rights, but they are not much respected in India, not to mention any of the countries surrounding Afghanistan, or for that matter, any of the other Muslim nations. Hospitals and clinics might be acceptable -- as long as they do not follow our ideas about birth control (especially before marriage), AIDS, diet and most other things.

We just tried to change another multiethnic, largely Muslim society: Kosovo. We hoped to get the sharply divided ethnic groups to form a coalition government and cooperate on the local level. Instead, they kept killing one another, and now we are stuck, unable to extricate ourselves, as we act, in effect, as the local police force.

On the lighter side, a leading American aid manager called for turning Kosovo into a society free of drugs and guns -- ignoring that we have hardly been able to approximate this goal in our own society. Indeed, we often project on other societies our best dreams. Our ideas are as commendable (who could oppose ending the suffering of these people?) as they are unrealistic.

If all of this does not convince you that we should recognize that our being a "superpower" refers to our military capabilities, not our social-engineering abilities, then maybe this will: Our previous attempt to free Afghanistan led directly to the creation, arming and victory of the oppressive, terrorist-harboring Taliban.

What is to be done?

One should do for Afghanistan what we did for Serbia: cause the theocratic, authoritarian government to collapse, but allow the local people to work out their own form of government, priorities and development plans. We should set only some limited conditions: mainly, that they cannot sponsor terrorism, or we will have to remove the next government as well. Nor will we stand by if they invade or undermine the government of another country.

Ideally, we would like them also to be open to outside people, ideas and commerce, because this will make it easier for us to keep an eye on them and provide the preconditions from which a democratic society might one day evolve. However, we should recognize that even asking that may well be too much.

Our foreign-policy mavens will argue back that if we proceed in this way, Afghanistan could deteriorate into chaos, with various factions fighting one another. This may well be true. However, the sad fact is that people stop fighting when they are tired of the bloodshed and not when we call time out and seek to act as referee.

We, of course, failed in Vietnam. After decades of acting as intermediaries between the Israelis and Palestinians, we have little to show for it. Even in Northern Ireland, where the parties are close to being exhausted, we (even working with the Britons) may have merely pushed peace a bit faster than it would have come about on its own (or -- again -- largely failed).

Out of chaos comes homegrown order. As much as I hate to see one more Afghan having to pay with his or her life for an end to massive violence in that part of the world, I fear that the only order that will stick will arise once the parties have finished duking it out with each other.

I wish I could dream with those who want to see us as the promoters of good government and peaceful societies. It is simply beyond us. We must humbly learn from our past about our limitations. What we can and ought to do is follow the Hippocratic oath: at least cause no harm. We surely do not want to be the country that fosters the next breed of Taliban.

Amitai Etzioni, the author of The Limits of Privacy, is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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