Democracy's skeptics

Posted: Feb 03, 2006 12:05 AM

President Bush is assailed from the left as a rights-violating, murderous warmonger. (Cindy Sheehan: "George Bush still continues his evil rhetoric that he is waging a war on terrorism, and he is really waging a war of terrorism against the world.") And from the right, the president stands accused of pathetic naivete for promoting democracy. Why would anyone want that job?

Is it naive to promote democracy in the Third World? Certainly it can be -- if you treat elections as ends in themselves or imagine that the process of democratization is either easy or inevitable. On the other hand, those who scoff that people living under tyranny lack the habits and discipline to grasp liberty when it is offered may be needlessly pessimistic.

Spain had lived under repressions of various kinds and degrees for centuries when King Juan Carlos shepherded that nation to democracy in the 1970s. So had El Salvador when its people braved bullets and terror from the communists in the 1980s to vote in a centrist democratic government. Japan, after terrorizing the East under a militarist regime in the 1930s and '40s, was able to embrace the democratic model under American tutelage. And among the nations that have inherited the rich Western tradition of human rights and the dignity of the individual, we would certainly have to include Germany. Yet who would cite Germany for the proposition that the Western tradition alone equips men to embrace liberty and reject despotism?

Elections alone do not create democratic societies. Democracies must also, as President Bush noted in his State of the Union speech, respect the rights of minorities, uphold private property, preserve the independence of the judiciary and respect a free press. But elections are a tangible first step that can give a formerly subjugated people the confidence and patience to build a truly free society. The indispensable election is not the first, but the second; because the second establishes the principle that the people are sovereign.

Voters in the Palestinian territories voted for an Islamic extremist movement. It was a free and fair election. Does this invalidate the push for democracy in the Arab world? No. This result was in part the legacy of 30 years of tyranny and kleptocracy by Yasser Arafat. The Palestinians were aching to reject the corrupt reign of Fatah, yet the only vehicle available to express their displeasure was Hamas. Now the key question is: Will there be a second election? Or a third? If so, then Hamas may well be held accountable. If not, it is hard to see how the election we just witnessed makes things any worse. If nothing else, it offers a measure of clarity to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Fatah was committed to violence and terror against Israel but claimed not to be. Hamas is at least direct about it. Even the most self-deluded Israeli will have trouble imagining he sees a "partner for peace" in Hamas (though Europe will no doubt sanitize Hamas within a few months and demand that Israel negotiate with them).

Voters in Iran have long since tired of their clerical masters (to put it mildly). Yet their elections have not been free. The contest that brought Ahmadinejad to the presidency was a rigged affair, with the mullahs disqualifying hundreds of candidates (including all the women) who would have sought office. The mullahs cannot permit free elections because their Islamic Republic would be soundly rejected.

The communist junta that controlled Nicaragua between 1979 and 1988 didn't want to permit free elections either. Communists never do. But severe international pressure, specifically from their Central American neighbors, and military pressure from the Contras, forced them to accede. It was the first and last free election in a communist country. The Sandinistas lost big.

For decades, the American government took a benevolent view of the authoritarian (and in some cases totalitarian) governments of the Middle East. They did so in the name of stability. The result was an incubator of terrorism. Democracy will not easily take root in that rocky soil, but the Iraqis and Afghans who proudly display their ink-stained fingers are a rebuke to those who sniff that it's a fool's errand.

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