Understanding Condi

Posted: Oct 31, 2005 12:05 AM

If Condoleezza Rice ever does run for president, the following line may become very familiar:

"The only problem, of course, was that when the Founding Fathers said, `We the people,' they didn't mean me."

For the past few years, the most powerful woman on Earth has been delivering this clincher. And it gets a gasp every time. I first read it in a speech Ms. Rice gave last week in Birmingham, Ala. Of course, it's a dramatic, even melodramatic, statement -- a testament to the continuing expansion of liberty provided by our 218-year-old Constitution. But Ms. Rice drops it in by way of illustrating the historic flaws of democracy, American-style; and this she drops in by way of dismissing the current flaws of democracy-building in the Muslim world. 

It's an awkward exercise, but she's bent on it. "We should note that unlike in our Constitutional Convention, the Iraqis have not made a compromise as bad as the one that made my ancestors three-fifths of a man," she said. Is it politically incorrect to find this statement offensive? Yes, slaves were indeed counted as a fractional person in pre-abolition censuses that determined how many representatives a state would send to the House of Representatives. (Slaveholders, not slavery opponents, wanted a slave to count as one person to augment their state's political power.) But it is the miracle of that 18th-century document that it contained the blueprint for abolition. By contrast, the 2005 Iraqi Constitution (also the 2003 Palestinian Authority constitution and the 2004 Afghanistan constitution) contains provisions for a Sharia state under which all men are not created equal, and freedom of conscience is denied.

But that's not what Ms. Rice sees, and it's her prism that counts. While the president works his way through a string of "isms" (fascism, totalitarianism, communism, Nazism) to place the ideology of Islamic terrorism into context, the secretary of state studies something else: the lessons of the civil rights movement. In the transformation of her hometown of Birmingham from, as she put it, "a place called `Bombingham,' where I witnessed the denial of democracy in America for so many years," the secretary of state seems to see the blueprint for the democratization of the non-democratic, particularly Muslim world.

This Rice Doctrine grows from the segregated South: "Across the empire of Jim Crow, from upper Dixie to the lower Delta, the descendants of slaves shamed our nation with the power of righteousness and redeemed America at last from its original sin of slavery," Ms. Rice said. "By resolving the contradiction at the heart of our democracy," she continued,  "America finally found its voice as a true champion of democracy beyond its shores."

In this worldview, it's not, say, the 700,000 casualties of the Civil War plus one assassinated president who redeemed that original sin of slavery, but rather the civil rights movement that helped overturn Southern segregation laws a century later. Indeed, it was only at this relatively late date, if I'm reading Ms. Rice's words correctly, that America could finally sally forth as a "true champion of democracy" -- which makes you wonder who it was who went to Belleau Wood in 1918, St. Lo in 1945, and Chosin Reservoir in 1950.

The implication seems clear: American democracy wasn't all that much to be proud of until the civil rights leaders Ms. Rice calls the "impatient patriots" -- Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, for instance --came along. This supports one of her main policy points; namely, that even in America "democratization is a long and difficult process, not a singular event." So much for the miracle at Philadelphia.

Such a view of American unexceptionalism makes it perfectly OK to support other "impatient patriots" (her phrase again) in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian Authority. They, like our Founders, she might say, permit anti-democratic tendencies to mar their nascent democracies (Sharia on the books, bomb-toting terrorists on the ballots), but no one should balk. Only "cynics," as Ms. Rice said -- the same people she said "once believed that blacks were unfit for democracy" -- argue "that the people of the Middle East, perhaps because of their color or their creed or their culture or even perhaps because of their religion, are somehow incapable of democracy."

In this mix 'n' match take on history, facts about clashing belief systems have no place, and fears for freedom under Sharia are "cynical" or worse.
But when debate is stopped cold by pushing the hot buttons of racism and bigotry, realpolitik gives way to feelpolitik -- maybe the ultimate doctrine of pre-emption.