Timothy Burke has a post up arguing, amongst other things, that various cheerleaders - Christopher Hitchens is perhaps the most familiar - for the neo-con's foreign policy experiments in the Middle East fail to address the genuine problems with their theory that appear even if you take what they say at face value. I don't think, personally, that all the stuff about democracy is much more than a figleaf for installing client regimes wherever they can get their grubby little mitts on, but even assuming that they do really mean it, they have some serious problems, most of which Burke skewers fairly accurately. For example, neo-cons have been known, I understand, to cite democratic peace theory as support for the supposed project of democratization, because, it is claimed, democratic peace theory shows that a more democratic world will be a more peaceful world.
Democratic peace theory generalizes from the fact that no two (fully-fledged, parliamentary) democracies have ever gone to war to a thesis that no two democracies will ever go to war, or at least that democracies are much less likely to war with each other than any other sorts of states are. As I remember from doing a paper in international relations as an undergraduate, you have to be fairly robust in your definition of democracy to get the empirical claim, and then, because the numbers of democracies are so low, and often so far apart, the idea that it is democracy rather than not having anything to fight about that prevents these states from fighting starts to collapse. For example, it hardly particularly surprising that Australia and Swizterland have not ever gone to war, because they are simply so far apart. Equally, since it has, until the last hundred or so years, been fairly rare for states which do not have a land border to go to war, so that the United States, the oldest democracy, has not gone to war with any other democracies, since most of them have, historically, been in Europe, separated by at least three thousand miles of water.
There is, though, it seems to me, something to the idea that democracies are much less likely to go to war with each other. The ideas that democracy encourages compromise and negotiation rather than resort to violence, that it is particularly responsive to the wishes of those who are likely to die in wars, rather than the wishes of those who are likely to gain prestige and wealth from wars, that democracies tend to be more open societies, with more links to other states, and so on, do seem to argue that democracies are less likely to go to war, at least with other democracies (actually, the historical record indicates that democracies are in fact more likely to go to war with non-democracies than other non-democracies are: this is probably because democracies often have interests in liberalizing non-democracies - opening them up to foreign trade, for example - and the conflict-resolution stratgeies of both tend to clash - crudely, if I am used to resolving disputes by trials of strength, I will look upon attempts at compromise and negotiation as an invitation to agression).
All that said, it is worth noting that whatever truth the democratic peace theory has, it has as a result of stable patterns of democratic decision-making and the dominance of commercial interests in democratic societies. Installing, from above, a set of democratic structures, unless and until those structures are supported by the population, will not provide the benefits, because the characteristics from which the benefits flow do not yet exist. In fact, states which have recently changed system of government, and democratizing states in particular, appear to be more likely to go to war than any other states. It is easy to understand why stability in domestic political arrangements might in general lead to less violent foreign policy: a stable domestic political arrangement is likely to lead to a stable foreign policy, because the interests of those ruling the state are unlikely to change particularly quickly, and a stable foreign policy tends to be more peaceful, because going to war is usually essentially a mistake, where one side has underestimated the strength of the other, a mistake which is less likely to be made if everyone has reasonably accurate expectations of each other's behaviour.
What's particularly interesting is that democratizing states are particularly likely to go to war, that their foreign policy is particularly aggressive and unstable. Again, if we think about the domestic political structures, this makes sense. Democratizing societies are characterized, generally, by aristocratic or autocratic groups attempting to cling onto power by mobilising support from other groups whose interests run counter to those of the mass of the new enfranchised population: heavy industry, perhaps the urban middle class. Yet shackling together largely commercial and largely military or agricultural interests does not make for stable policy prescriptions, especially when there is an attempt to capture a working-class nationalist vote. Unless a democratizing polity is utterly monolithic, then it will be characterized by groups which have political power utterly disproportionate to their electoral strength, who realise that power is ebbing, and will attempt to create coalitions which they can dominate in order to hold onto it. This will lead to increasingly incompatible policy prescriptions as the coalition becomes more and more disparate. Thus, an unstable and often aggressive foreign policy.
But if democratization leads to increased amounts of war, then even if the democratic peace theory is correct, it would not necessarily be a good idea to attempt to use it as the theoretical basis for democratizing societies, as these societies are likely to become more violent before they become less, if they ever become less. It might be possible, of course, to skip the stage of democratization and go straight into being a fully fledged democracy: I can only assume that this is what the neo-cons assume will happen. But that just shows an ignorance of political sociology. Democracies tend to exist, where they do exist, as the result of a process of gradual historical development, where the polity becomes more democratic as the society does, distributing political power increasingly equally, becoming more and more habituated to democratic modes of political practice. In the absence of that process, and the favourable historical conditions which tend to allow it, democracies tend to collapse back into a more or less autocratic system. Perhaps those historical conditions do exist in the Middle East now, and so that process will occur. It seems unlikely to me, and even if it does, it's likely to lead to more violence at first.
This is the kind of genuine intellectual challenge to the neo-cons, which takes their professed belief in democracy seriously, and wonders about the wisdom of their policy, which their cheerleaders utterly fail to address. Shouting ' you're an apologist for mass murder' does not address the point that democracy requires social support, which may well not be forthcoming if it is imposed by external force, and that the period of habituation to democratic norms may in fact lead to further violence. I think it's quite interesting in a way that some many once on the hard left are now supporters of the foreign policy of the Bush government, since both share the Manichean tendency to paint any disagreement as collusion with an unutterably evil enemy. The utopianism of both is probably the root of this, and one of the things which substanially distinguishes them from liberals, who realise only too well that there are genuine moral costs to most actions, and that the ends do not necessarily justify the means.