Monthly Archives: January 2005

Carothers on democracy-promotion

It appears that voting has gone very well in Iraq. I take this from the Guardian and Le Monde as well as the US media. Michael Ignatieff is right that we should celebrate free elections in Iraq, mourn those killed as they tried to campaign or vote, and condemn the opponents of Iraqi elections as “fascists.”

Nevertheless, the broader issue remains: Can the US directly promote democracy in the Middle East? On Friday, I had a chance to hear Thomas Carothers speak at Maryland. Carothers directs the “Democracy and Rule of Law Project” at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is a supremely sensible, cogent, experienced thinker about democracy. I did not take notes, unfortunately, but here are some key points as I remember them.

While American administrations have traditionally believed that our national interests are best protected by stability in the Middle East, the Bush people believe that the existing autocratic regimes hurt us, and that we would be better off with democratic ones. Many liberal types in Washington agree with this goal, although they doubt the administration’s competence and sincerity. Thus “democracy-promotion” has achieved consensus in DC, at least as an ideal. However, in Western Europe and the Middle East, absolutely everyone is against a project of US-sponsored democratic regime change.

Carothers feels that the project will be extremely difficult, at best. The US lacks credibility with Arabs and Muslims because of our traditional support for autocratic regimes, our tilt to Israel, and our botched invasion of Iraq. Many powerful actors in the US have mixed motives, wanting to preserve cosy business relationships or to cooperate with Arab police states in the “war on terror.”

Above all, democracy-promotion is difficult because regimes like those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, and Morocco are well-established, well-funded, and ruthless. They have plans for the orderly succession of power and face no dangerous insurgencies other than al Qaeda. It is extremely rare in human history for democratic movements to succeed under such conditions. This is not an argument that Arabs are unready or unsuited for democracy. However, democratic reform is always difficult, and the stars are very badly aligned in the Middle East.

Carothers doubts that there is any trick, any silver-bullet, any comprehensive strategy that we could employ to boost democracy in the region, even if our intentions were reasonably good. In theory, however, we could make democracy-promotion a consistent goal and then constantly seek opportunities to advance it: in diplomacy, military exchanges, trade policy, progaganda, and economic aid. If we also sought opportunities to work multilaterally–indeed, if we sometimes hid behind trusted third parties, such as the Nordic countries–then we could make incremental progress. At a minimum, we could gradually improve our credibility and thereby put ourselves in a position to help substantially if the situation ever changed in the Middle East.

the murder of Marlowe

In the Milwaukee airport (which has a used-book store!), I recently bought Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning. This is a careful effort to solve the murder of Christopher Marlowe in 1593. Most people think that Marlowe, Shakespeare’s rival, died in a tavern brawl. It turns out that he was killed after a long meeting in a respectable private house, owned by a woman who had government connections. The other people present were all professional spies, as was Marlowe himself. Nicholl painstakingly assembles evidence that suggests–although it doesn’t prove–the following story. (Warning: I’m about to give away Nicholl’s “plot,” so skip if you think you might read the book.)

The Earl of Essex, who had a private intelligence service, wanted to finish off his chief rival, the disgraced Sir Walter Raleigh. In parliament, Raleigh had made speeches against the large population of Dutch merchants then resident in London. Essex’ men posted an anoymous poem on the London streets threatening the Dutch merchants with a murderous riot; it quoted several of Marlowe’s plays. The government formed a commission to investigate who had written this dangerous broadside. They arrested Marlowe’s former roommate, the playwright Thomas Kyd. Among Kyd’s papers (probably planted by the government), were “atheist” writings, “denyinge the deity of Jhesus Christ our Savior.” Under torture, Kyd stated that the papers must be Marlowe’s, and that Marlowe was a scoffer against religion. Whether or not Kyd said so explicitly, others held that Marlowe had shared his heretical opinions with Raleigh, who dabbled in magic and was often accused of atheism. In general, Marlowe and Raleigh moved in similar circles.

Marlowe was arrested. Perhaps the Essex faction expected to be able to condemn him and tar Raleigh with the association. Or perhaps they hoped he would actually give evidence against Raleigh. Unfortunately for them, Marlowe was released–almost certainly because he was an experienced agent in Robert Cecil’s spy service. Accused, but evidently under someone’s protection, Marlowe represented a risk for several parties. He might provide Cecil with evidence that would reveal the machinations of the Essex faction against Walter Raleigh. Or he might reveal too much about his own work for Cecil. The two major spy networks in the country both had reasons to silence him.

Somehow he was enticed to meet alone with several agents associated with Essex as well as one of Cecil’s leading fixers. The meeting lasted all day and may have involved tense negotiations. In the end, Ingram Frizer, probably a spy for Essex, killed Marlowe. The three spies presented a highly implausible story of self-defense to the coronor’s jury, which accepted it. And so Marlowe was silenced.

A serious literary critic could interestingly explore the relationships between two kinds of “plotting” in Marlowe’s life. Many Elizabethan espionage operations were elaborate fake stories, designed to influence popular opinion or to entrap an enemy. Spies were actors, playing parts. Elizabethan plays also had plots, half invented and half based on facts. Nicholl notes this relationship, but he doesn’t have space to interpret Marlowe’s plays closely in the light of his discoveries about their author’s other life.


I just met a group of Midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy who are looking for research projects on political participation (for their poli.-sci. seminar). Most of them will look at big data sets like the National Election Study and try to figure out relationships and trends. That’s fine, but I encouraged some of them to consider interviewing service people who had done “nation-building” work in Iraq. During the discussion, someone mentioned an officer (probably in the Army rather than the Navy or Marines) who had become the de facto mayor of a Bagdhad neighborhood. I’m curious about what skills and instincts for political work people in his position feel they possess. They may have gained good skills and instincts from growing up in the US or from their formal military training. But I’d also like to know what they feel they’re missing, and what they are learning from their service in Iraq. Do they think that they can use the political and civic skills they acquire “over there” after they get back home?

The Midshipmen I met today are not ideally placed to conduct this research, although a few seemed game to try. I may also try to persuade some Maryland undergraduates to interview people at the National Guard’s 352nd Civil Affairs Command, located near our campus. This is a specialist unit that?s been assigned to Iraq. I believe at least one officer has also been an elected official in Prince George’s County, MD. Whatever we think of the invasion and occupation, it should create opportunities to learn how to build communities and democracies.

high school reform

I don’t know as much about high school reform as I should, but I am picking up the following ideas.

First, over the next five years or so, high schools will be the topic of the most interesting debates and reforms in all of education. For elementary and middle schools, we have a regime in place, as codified in No Child Left Behind (NCLB). There are frequent statewide tests; scores are disaggregated by race, gender, disability, and language background; and every group must make “adequate yearly progress” on the tests or else schools face penalties. Like it or hate it, this is the status quo for grades 1-8; only adjustments are possible.

The formula embodied in NCLB doesn’t affect high schools nearly as deeply, yet there is widespread agreement that they should be thoroughly reformed. In particular, many people criticize huge, themeless, “shopping mall” high schools that offer long lists of courses and activities (as well as cliques and networks) for a wide variety of students. Kids who enter on a very good track or who have positive support from peers and family may make wise choices about their courses, friends, extracurricular activities, and next steps after graduation. Other students will make bad–or inconsistent and incoherent–choices, and then pay for their own adolescent decisions for the rest of their lives. “Shopping mall” high schools also tend to have reasonably bad discipline, a general atmosphere of alienation, and lots of internal segregation by race, class, and subculture. Often, they occupy suburban-style campuses, set far apart from the adult community of work, family, religion, and politics. (The school where I often work serves a low-income minority population, yet it has an isolated building on a great big lawn.) Even worse, some of these huge schools occupy prison-like urban blocks, secured with gates and bars.

Most developmental pyschologists feel that adolescents need more moral and cultural coherence and guidance than the typical high school provides. Teenagers are not in much danger of being brainwashed by a strong institutional culture; rebellion comes naturally to them. They are in danger of becoming completely alienated and lost in an institution that lacks values and mission.

It’s fine to let students choose among competing schools. Some students will do better in a school oriented toward scientific research, or service-learning, or the great books. But the choice should be carefully made among coherent, purposeful communities, not “a la carte” off a miscellaneous list of courses and other experiences. Perhaps more important, almost all schools should be small, so that no student is overlooked or forgotten.

Thus we see the Gates Foundation and major school districts like New York City investing heavily in small, themed schools, many of which connect academic instruction to internships or community service. High school reform, so conceived, has risks and drawbacks. Students may choose schools in ways that reinforce inequality. For example, children of lawyers and doctors may migrate to the “great books” schools; poor children, to service-learning academies. Some schools will choose foolish ideas for their themes or will implement their ideas poorly. Finally, it takes many small schools to replace a few huge ones. While the small ones are being built (and this will inevitably take years), most students will be left in the old “shopping malls,” which may degenerate further because they will be slated for destruction–and the more motivated students will escape first. Nevertheless, I think high school reform is highly promising, and we need to figure out how to do it right.