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Wednesday, May 2

Whither the Bush Democracy Doctrine?

Here's a conundrum:

On April 27, Turkey's Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, who is perceived by many Turks to represent a push by Turkey's clerics to Islamize the government, came within 10 votes of winning the presidency. That prompted the military, which has led three coups since 1960 to preserve Turkey's secularist government, that they had an "unshakable determination" to defend Turkey's secularism.

That galvanized the European Union's Enlargement Commissioner, Olli Rehn, to announce primly that the army's reaction to the presidential vote was a "clear test case" of whether it could respect the EU's "democratic values."

But anyone past the age of 12 knows that if the clerics win out, Turkey heads down the road toward Taliban-style government, which is why more than a million Turks took to the streets after the vote to protest Gul's candidacy. They know that secularism is the bulwark of democracy.

On the other hand Rehn has a point: if you're going to suspend the democratic process in favor of military rule until the vote comes out a certain way, is this democracy in action?

The US government has been running into one version or another of this conundrum ever since President Bush articulated the democracy doctrine. As Jackson Diehl nicely summed it in his April 30 op-ed A Lasting Freedom Agenda Bush's second term
... has seen the virtual collapse of Iraq's democratic experiment, the consolidation of autocratic governments in Russia and Venezuela, the extinction of the liberal reform movements that Bush briefly inspired in the Arab Middle East -- and the de facto reversal of Bush's "freedom agenda" by his own State Department.
Officially, State is still supporting the democracy doctrine. On April 16, at a State meeting of their Advisory Committee on Democracy Promotion, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asserted that the "first goal" of American foreign policy should be developing democracies.
... without well-governed, democratic states, you're likely to have failed states or authoritarian states that are going to submerge but not deal with the unhealthy political forces that lead to extremism.(1)
We'll ignore the silly statement that democracy promotion should be the first goal of America's or any country's foreign policy; the first goal of a rational foreign policy is defense of the country. But within the context of national defense, yes, in the 21st century there is a direct connection between disenfranchised populations and the highly portable warfare that can bring a democratic country to its knees.

Yet the defense priority for the United States also means cutting deals with leaders of nondemocratic governments, such as the ones in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The globalized business priority means doing big business with China's repressive government. So it's an open secret that State is applying the democracy doctrine in highly selective fashion.

I long for a Turkish version of Boss Tweed to resolve the conundrum. Forget a military coup; just keep recounting the votes until the tally comes out in favor of the secular candidate. Pundita readers who are not American should not be shocked at my advice. See The Gangs of New York, a movie I've mentioned more than once on this blog, to be clear that the rise of American democracy was a very messy and very corrupt process.

Tweed was thoroughly corrupt, but he also had a sense of history and two eyes in his head. He understood that Brooklyn and the rest of New York city neighborhoods couldn't keep absorbing huge waves of immigrants and freed slaves who had no say whatsoever about the abuses they were suffering at the hands of the "natives" who controlled every aspect of government. Better to give the immigrant populations the hope that they had some representation than to see them form armies that brought down the society. Events proved Tweed right, as you can see from watching the movie.

But then, would argue a promoter of sharia government, why not apply Tweed's reasoning to the millions of Turks who want a government run by clerics? For three reasons:

First, those millions are not disenfranchised by their secular government.

Second, successful secular democracies are being inundated with refugees from repressive governments that represent or promote sharia over secularism.

The third reason is that we are not here to be happy and secure. We are here to grow, which invariably means taking on great suffering and risk.

I still have somewhere in my files an old Washington Post report on the large number of Catholic Latin American immigrants to the Washington, DC region who are converting to Islam. Why they are converting? A big reason for the females is the sense of security they have from walking around the streets wearing a tent. One young convert said that after she starting wearing the veil, Latino construction workers stopped whistling at her and making catcalls -- attentions which she'd always hated and feared. Others are converting from the sense of security they have from Islam's uncomplicated strictures and being able to leave important life decisions to clerics.

How to tell these people that when humans leave a womb, they can't crawl back in -- and that every attempt to do so inevitably brings horrific suffering to themselves and others? The easy rides are over for humanity.

Yet already Nigerians have lost faith in their young democracy because the democratically elected government is terribly corrupt. "Military rule is best because the military will not allow people to do anything they want," observed one disappointed Nigerian. "The cheaters are too much for democracy."

There are ways other than military rule to stop corrupt government officials from doing anything they want. One way is a strong judicial system; another way is cracking skulls. But first Nigerians have to get past the notion that democracy is electing a bunch of patriarchs who will do everything for you. They are still looking for a chief.

Many around the world say they believe in reincarnation but do they ever stop and think through the implications? Many are still longing for a chieftain to run their lives for them. Yet one look at all the clay feet in today's government leaders suggests that history's most enlightened chieftains are not incarnating in droves to lead the same flocks again.

Why? Probably because the reign of great splendor, security and peace lasts only as long as the chief. True or not, that's how I explain it to myself when I long for more security. Think about it: after you play daddy to a tribe about a thousand times, it gets old. You say, "Wait a minute. I'm leaving behind a bunch of thumb-suckers. Then they pray to me to return. Then I return and get them out of their jam, and what happens? They go back to sucking their thumb as soon my incarnation croaks."

I suspect the ancestors have put their foot down. If humanity gets hit with enough corrupt and hideously inept chiefs, we will eventually get off our collective butt and do government ourselves.

In any case we should no longer expect government to be a doting patriarch who will protect us and absolve us of the suffering involved in mastering personal freedom and the great responsibility the mastery process entails.

This discussion is fun but does not treat what the United States can do to help promote democracy worldwide, and whether the US can sustain the push for democracy in developing countries when it conflicts with short-term US national interests.

Fareed Zakaria, who is an influential commentator (in 2006 he was named one of the world's 100 most influential Harvard graduates), represents one way of looking at the problem; his view has coin in Washington. He disputes the Bush administration's push for democratic elections:
He has often argued that helping countries to modernize their economies and societies is a more secure path to development and liberty than pushing for elections and democracy.

His second book, "The Future of Freedom", develops this latter theme more fully. In it, he argues that democracy works best in societies when it is preceded by "constitutional liberalism", which he defines as the rule of law, rights of property, contract, and individual freedoms. He has written that historically liberty has preceded democracy, not the other way around. He has argued that countries that simply hold elections without broad-based modernization -- including economic liberalization and the rule of law -- end up becoming "illiberal democracies
".(2)
Watch The Gangs of New York for a graphic illustration as to why Fareed's argument is flawed. The residents of Five Points were treated worse than serfs and had very few liberties, but the journey of a thousand miles began at the ballot box -- even though the ballots were stuffed.

At the same time, voting cannot sustain anything but a stage-show democracy without growing the civil society infrastructure that Fareed discusses. This is where US aid and development dollars can be put to good use.

I think it's early days to dismiss Bush's doctrine, which is only as old as his second inaugural address. I return to Jackson Diehl's column, which features his interview with Natan Sharansky -- whose views on democracy greatly influenced Bush's thinking.
"It's not that the democracy policy was adopted and applied and turned out not to work," Sharansky said.

"There was never a strategy for applying it. There was no unity of purpose. Hardly any political leaders besides Bush believed in the concept. Even here in America there was terrible resistance. It's not enough that the president believes in the policy and wants to act. He has to be able to carry the country and the bureaucracy with him."

Sharansky has seen this happen before. As a Soviet dissident, he was exultant when President Jimmy Carter promised to make human rights promotion a top priority of his presidency and responded to a letter from Sharansky's mentor, Andrei Sakharov.

"Then one after another we were arrested. Carter spoke out but did nothing," Sharansky recounted. "We all felt abandoned and terribly disappointed."

That's how most Arab liberals in the Middle East now feel about Bush. But Sharansky sees the shift toward greater human freedom as a series of waves.

"It's a very rare phenomenon that this policy exists in a U.S. government," he said. "It existed for a short period of time in the '70s, and it existed for a brief time now, more strongly. It will come back again, and stronger the next time. It will happen because the countries of the free world will realize that we are in a fight for survival with extremist ideology around the world, and we have no stronger weapon than the desire of people to live in freedom."

Sharansky hasn't given up on Bush. In February, he proposed to the president that he attend an unusual conference Sharansky is organizing with former dissident and Czech president Vaclav Havel and former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar -- a dialogue between dissidents and political leaders. Beleaguered advocates of human rights from Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Cuba, Belarus and Russia, among other places, are expected for the meeting June 4-6 in Prague. And now, so is Bush. "It will give him a chance to renew his policy," Sharansky said. "People who live under dictatorship still believe in it, and will go on fighting for it."
If the conference is a brainstorming session, it will be interesting.

1) Dana Milbank, April 17, The Washington Post section Washington Sketch.

2) Wikipedia
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