According to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, regime change in Libya is a political - but not military - “goal” of the Obama administration. As much as there is to criticize in that confused distinction, the deeper problem with the administration’s approach to the Middle East is its confusion over what should follow regime change. A fixation on merely elected leadership or government by self-proclaimed people’s champions ignores important lessons from our own history.
Entering office under the threat of civil war, Abraham Lincoln was prepared to do anything to keep the country together so long as the union he wished to save remained worthy of being saved. The Declaration of Independence had committed the United States to the cause of equal liberty, charging the new government of the independent states - even before it was formed - with the duty to protect the God-given natural rights of all Americans.
In one speech, Lincoln told his audience that if the only way to save the union was to give that up, he would “rather be assassinated on this spot.” Lincoln had no desire to live to see a United States that had repudiated the principle that, so long as she championed it and demonstrated its power, “gave hope to the world for all future time.” That hope was not found simply in “democracy,” but rather in the sort of republic described by James Madison in Federalist 10 and established by the Founders in the Constitution - one best able to secure the rights of all because it places both moral and institutional restraints on the majority.
Ironically, while the U.S. Constitution is the longest-lasting and most successful written constitution in the world, it is also perhaps the least imitated. Even when the United States has been able to have a heavy influence on the constitution of a conquered nation, as in Japan after World War II or, more recently, in Iraq, it has proposed parliamentary models closer to the English institutions we rebelled against than the form our nation’s Founders judged, in the words of the Declaration, “most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” In other words, we have promoted popular government for peoples freed from autocratic rule without the restraints that make it a blessing instead of a curse.
Why? The short answer is that in the very year that the American Constitution went into effect, the French Revolution challenged all impediments to pure democracy, establishing a new benchmark for “just” government that eventually carried the day. While the United States resisted this impulse for a time, the Jacksonians of the first half of the 19th century and the Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries successfully made every limitation on pure popular rule appear to be morally suspect. Thus, even while Americans enjoyed the benefits of their republican institutions, their leaders grew increasingly embarrassed by their undemocratic elements (like a bicameral legislature) and the moral principles that undergird them (the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”). As a result, what we’ve exported to the world for almost a century is the erroneous notion that instituting elections is the same thing as instituting good government.
The friends of liberty have no interest in being the apologists for abusive regimes. But the anger that brings down oligarchic oppressors is not easily transformed into the mutual respect that prevents democratic oppression. If we must be careful not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, we should still make sure that the good is, at least, good.
Meanwhile, so long as our own politics continues to move further away from the constitutional model prescribed by our Founders, there is much less to recommend in our example and much more reason for caution and humility in promoting regime change by urging it upon others.
C. David Corbin is the dean of the School of Politics, Philosophy, and Economics and Matthew T. Parks the assistant provost at The King’s College. They are the co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (Wipf & Stock, 2011).