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|Posted March 12, 2003|
|It's Democracy, Like It or Not|
|By TOOD S. PURDUM|
|2003 Iranians continued to vote for civic and social policy reforms.|
WASHINGTON For more than two centuries, no nation on earth has preached the healing powers of democracy more consistently than the United States. H. L. Mencken summed up the native faith as "the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."
Now President Bush pledges that by ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein, "free people will set the course of history, and free people will keep the peace of the world."
If only it were that easy. Since its emergence as a world power at the beginning of the last century, the United States has often made cold-eyed compromises with the crosscurrents of democracy around the world. From Latin America to Asia, Africa and beyond, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have welcomed democracy when it serves American interests, and been far more ambivalent when it complicates American strategic goals or national security.
Mr. Bush may welcome the idea of an Iraq more democratic than Saddam Hussein's despotic regime, but his administration bemoaned the democratic vote of Turkey's Parliament to deny American troops access to Turkish soil, and the resistance of democracies in "old Europe" to a march to war. The president would doubtless blanch at plebiscites that installed Islamic fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or a Palestinian democracy that kept Yasir Arafat in power.
Last week, Mr. Bush said he would seek another vote of support from the United Nations Security Council, that unruly parliament of nations, for action against Iraq, "no matter what the whip count is." But he insisted in almost the same breath that "we really don't need anybody's permission" to defend American interests.
Such a gap between preachment and practice is common to all powerful democracies. Only tyrannies can be entirely consistent. But from its earliest days, the American ideal promised something more, and was held up as a global example.
Yet for most of the 19th century, the United States bought or won territory from foreign powers in war, avoided alliances and stood alone. And even though the United States helped found the United Nations and the post-World War II international security framework, it has faced varying degrees of anti-Americanism and charges of hypocrisy.
"It's something much deeper now," said James Chace, a professor of government and public law at Bard College. "What's happening is that the manner in which this administration has largely talked about the world, the kind of general arrogance and bullying tone, just reinforces the sense that we are now seen, and I think rightly, as an imperial power."
"The question," he added, "is whether it will be seen as relatively benevolent, or not."
Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland, said: "It is not about not wanting democracy. I think that we underestimate the extent to which other priorities overtake democracy in our foreign policy."
In a famous speech in 1982 outlining his foreign policy to the British Parliament, Ronald Reagan declared, "The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructures of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means."
But President Reagan often settled for less. The first President Bush protested when a military coup overthrew the democratically elected leader of Haiti, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but was far less exercised around the same time when the Algerian Army canceled the second round of elections that seemed certain to put an Islamic fundamentalist regime in power.
"The romance of democracy is that somehow the results will come out the way you want, but everything we know about democracy is that the result comes out the way the people want," said John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University. "It's a very creaky instrument."
Robert D. Kaplan, a foreign policy expert and author who has twice briefed President Bush, contends that there is no double standard to American ambitions abroad. He argues that the United States should promote democratic change where it can, but not do so irresponsibly in places unready to handle it, where the result could unleash anti-democratic forces. Advertisement
"Anyone can hold an election," he said, "but building real democratic institutions police, judges, a constitution is much harder." He added: "There will always be places where the alternatives are bad, and without hypocrisy you will improve human rights dramatically by going for a more liberal-minded dictator over a Stalinist one. If Saddam were to be replaced tomorrow by an Iraqi general along the lines of Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, real changes would occur."
It is perhaps no coincidence that authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia, or semi-authoritarian ones like Pakistan, are now offering active cooperation (sometimes quietly) in an American-led attack on Iraq. Leaders there may face public opinion that is 80 percent or 90 percent against American policy, but they can ride roughshod over those sentiments, unlike their European counterparts. In return, these regimes' intelligence services and military get American support that solidifies their hold on power, and intensifies anti-American feeling among their populations.
Franklin D. Roosevelt established the pattern of choosing stability over freedom in 1945 when he overlooked the autocratic ways of the Saudis and assured King ibn Saud of American protection in exchange for guaranteed supplies of oil helping make the world safe for Wahhabism. Harry S. Truman's swift recognition of Israel has complicated that compromise ever since, and Mr. Bush has been at pains for months to prove he is serious about making peace in the region.
"When it comes to the Middle East, we have to face the fact that the critical mobilizing issue is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser. "Democracy is a consequence of incremental hard work. It's not the consequence of either direct repression, à la Ariel Sharon, or bringing the entire Middle East structure tumbling down, à la Bush. It's an incremental process of building confidence, establishing relationships and pushing people in the direction of compromise."
"Grand-sounding rhetoric on the sidelines, followed by an intense war, which is likely to produce local resentments and further alienate the world, is not going to either produce democracy, or ultimately increase Israel's security," he added. "If we had democracy today in Egypt, we wouldn't have Mubarak but some members of the Muslim Brotherhood. If we're not careful, and pushed for a plebiscite in Saudi Arabia, Prince Abdullah might not do as well as Osama bin Laden."
Perhaps nowhere has the United States' support for democracy and its acceptance of dictatorships clashed more sharply than in Latin America, where one administration after another countenanced repressive regimes from Nicaragua to Chile in the name of hemispheric security.
But starting in the mid-1980's, "there began to emerge a bipartisan consensus about the value of supporting democracy," said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy study group in Washington. "The Democrats came at it from a human-rights perspective, and the right came at it from an anti-Communist perspective, and there was a kind of merger of both."
No one defined democracy more famously than Winston Churchill, who in 1947 called it "the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Perhaps no statesman knew more of what he spoke: after all, his own people had voted him out of office two years earlier, after he led them to the greatest military victory in their history.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from from The New York Times Company, Week in Review, of March 9, 2003.
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