Charles Krauthammer

This comes after the Palestinians, in their first post-Arafat parliamentary election, give the mandate to a terrorist group. And as Lebanon, the leader of the Arab Spring of 2005, watches Syrian proxies systematically kill one member of parliament after another to deny the democrats the quorum they need to elect a like-minded president.

These defeats, marking the cresting of the 30-year democratic wave that had swept through Latin America, Eastern Europe, East Asia and even parts of Africa, raise more than theoretical questions. They challenge the core Bush notion that American foreign policy should be predicated on trying to spread democracy. Six years after 9/11 there still is no remotely plausible alternative to the Bush Doctrine for ultimately changing the culture from which jihadism arises. But while spreading democracy may be necessary, can it, in fact, be done?

We know that it can, of course, as demonstrated by our success in turning Germany, Japan and South Korea into important democratic allies. But there we had the rare advantage of the near total control that came with uncontested postwar occupation.

What is required in conditions of far less control? A healthy respect for the enduring power of local political primitivism and a willingness to adapt to it.

In Afghanistan, that means accepting radical decentralization and the power of warlords. In Iraq, that means letting centralized top-down governance give way, at least temporarily, to provincial and tribal autonomy as the best means of producing effective representative institutions.

And in Pakistan, that means accepting both the enduring presence of feudal politics and the pre-eminent role of the military, Pakistan's one functioning national institution, as a guarantor of the state -- even (as in another secular Islamic country, Turkey) at the cost of giving it extra-constitutional authority. It also means accepting the reality that Pervez Musharraf, however dubious his democratic credentials, is not to be abandoned because his fall would unleash the deluge.

These are hard days for democracy. That is not a reason for giving up on it. It is a reason for the prudent acceptance and nurturing of local variants, however imperfect.

The Roman Church learned that spreading the creed required tolerance for the incorporation of certain pre-Christian practices as a way of strengthening the new faith and giving it local roots. For the spread of democracy today, we need to practice our own brand of syncretism and learn not to abandon the field when forced to settle for regional adaptations that fall short of the Jeffersonian ideal.

Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.

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