Early on in former Vice President Dick Cheney's appearance before the Long Island Association Thursday, I was convinced the highlight was his calling the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed "extending the hospitality of our forces."
Nothing could be ruder than letting a guest go thirsty, it's true, and Mohammed never lacked for hydration while in our care. Still, the comment would make me think twice about accepting an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner at the Cheney home. I'm not sure I have the toughness his brand of hospitality requires.
But later Cheney got on a more interesting topic: the U.S. presence in the Middle East, and the U.S. desire to spread democracy in that region.
Perhaps the largest falsehood we're taught in the United States is that what makes our country so special and free is democracy. That's not true by a long shot. What makes the United States so special and free is that we mostly vote for the right things and, thanks to the Constitution, can't opt for really terrible ones.
Asked why the wars in Iraq (eight years) and Afghanistan (11 years and counting) had to go on so long, Cheney said the administration of President George W. Bush believed it wasn't enough to take out the old governments. Something had to be put in their place.
That something, he said, was democracy, and the elected governments both countries now enjoy, and by enjoy, I mean rebel violently against.
The day after U.S. forces left Iraq with a coalition Sunni-Shia government in place, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, ordered the arrest of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni. Al-Hashimi fled, and was later sentenced to death in absentia.
Last month, a wave of bombings across Iraq left at least 50 people dead as Sunnis tried to kick the insurgency back into high gear. In response, the Shia government is now getting cuddly with Iran and Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. So, yeah, if we'd left after six years, they'd have a real mess.
In Afghanistan, the government of the duly, fraudulently elected Hamid Karzai was recently rated the third-most corrupt in the world by Transparency International, an advocacy organization that tracks government corruption around the globe. That means that while it was edged by Somalia and Myanmar, it outcorrupted nations like Chad, Rwanda and Haiti, which is, to be fair, impressive.
The Taliban remains strong, not despite the citizens, but thanks to support from some of them. The Afghan soldiers we're training have developed a nasty habit of shooting American soldiers. And the Obama administration has pretty much admitted we'll be totally out by 2014, not because we've got the place all fixed up, but because we've finally accepted that we can't do a thing with it.
Then there's Egypt, which recently had pretty fair elections. Cheney is alarmed that the Islamic Brotherhood dominated the voting and worried that the Arab Spring might not turn out as springy as we hoped.
This has always been the problem with U.S. support for democracy in other nations. We get all hurt and whiny when they don't vote right.
Democracy, in the United States and in Western Europe, is wonderful because it's an extension of Enlightenment philosophies that inform our versions of freedom, liberty, property and propriety. Our freedom finds its roots in the Magna Carta, written 800 years ago, and the constant refining of our beliefs on proper governance since. Democracy that hasn't evolved from such thinking isn't much better than dictatorships. In some cases, it may even be worse.
The political philosophies of most nations in the Middle East haven't evolved in a way that allows for the kind of democracy Cheney would have them adopt. Cheney's concept of hospitality, on the other hand, Middle Eastern leaders are entirely comfortable with.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.
This is a corrected version of the column. An earlier version incorrectly transposed "Shia" and "Sunnis" in the paragraph about last month's bombing.