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Tuesday, October 16

Now more than ever the Democracy Agenda, not the Dignity Agenda

David Ignatius's The Dignity Agenda op-ed reads like the foreign policy version of the argument that your teenager won't like you if he has to hear lectures about avoiding dope.
Dignity is the issue that vexes billions of people around the world, not democracy. Indeed, when people hear President Bush preaching about democratic values, it often comes across as a veiled assertion of American power. The implicit message is that other countries should be more like us -- replacing their institutions, values and traditions with ours. We mean well, but people feel disrespected. The bromides and exhortations are a further assault on their dignity.
As any Burmese monk or Egyptian democracy activist could tell David, nothing is more undignified than having to sit in a puddle of your own urine while being tortured by the secret police.

From Africa to the Middle East to Latin America to Asia, those fighting oppression are upset with the United States, all right. But they're upset because our government's words about democracy and actions often clash, or because America does not render more help in their fight for freedom.

Ignatius should remember that 9/11 did not have its roots in Osama bin Laden's wet dream about reestablishing the Caliphate. It was rooted in Ayman al-Zawahiri's unrelenting fury that America supported an oppressive Egyptian leader because he made peace with Israel.

Ignatius should remember the ultimate reason the US had to get embroiled in Iraq: because our government listened to the author of the Dignity Agenda, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Does Ignatius not recall the infamous Green Belt? Doesn't he realize that Brzezinski looked at the Persians and Arabs of the Middle East as mere pieces on a geostrategic chess board? Does he not remember how the US supported Saddam's tyranny, as a means to keep Iran off balance and hedge against Soviet designs in the Middle East?

What kind of person thinks of other humans as chess pieces? Someone who has descended to the thinking of a ghoul. The Cold War turned many policy advisors into ghouls when they gained the ear of Washington. Brzezinski was one such advisor. If he's now trying to salve his conscience by trumpeting human dignity, it's a little late in the day.

And I find it hard to believe that Ignatius would fall for such shoddy reasoning, and which so easily sells out on humanity. The standard for dignity, by Ignatius's admission, is a highly subjective concept that reads differently in different cultures. The standard for democratic government, on the other hand, is highly objective and thus, can be understood by anyone.

Of course if one has nothing else under tyranny but one's cultural practices, the concept of dignity must be stuffed into a defense of religious and social customs. But honestly, dignity has a greater chance to flower when you don't have to worry about secret police kicking down your door.

Ignatius really gets himself tangled up when he drags counterinsurgency methods into his argument that Americans should downplay democracy. Why yes, if you're the US military trying to hammer out a deal with a sheikh who's turned on al Qaeda, that's not the best time to argue democracy and human rights against the sheikh's "justice and honor."

Yet "justice and honor" are the code words for clan and tribal revenge cycles. Surveying the millenia-long oppression of the peoples called Iraqis, just see where fighting for justice and honor always landed them! It is well past time that tribes and clans the world over grow beyond their narrow codes -- which tyrannies since time immemorial have exploited on the divide-and-conquer theory.

Is America the wrong country to be talking to the world about democracy? Only if you never recovered from your high school years, when a frown from his peers can send a teenager into severe depression.

Can Americans learn to talk in more persuasive terms about democracy? Can we learn to frame our arguments in a lexicon more tailored to different cultures? And should we strive to more carefully time our lectures about human rights and democracy? Yes to all.

The immediate aftermath of the Beslan massacre was an awfully counterproductive moment to publicly lecture the Russians about Chechyna. Just as this moment is the very worst one in which to condemn the Turks for genocide.

As one Turkish official noted to the US government last week, "We found your weapons. They're killing us." He was speaking of a large weapons cache that went missing in Iraq, and which somehow turned up in the hands of the PKK.

However, it is folly to revise the most important message of our time to the point where it disappears. On his Sunday broadcast for KFI, John Batchelor reminded his listeners of Adolf Hitler's sneering comment that since the world had forgotten the Armenians, they wouldn't remember the Jews.

Nothing has changed from the time of Hitler, if we consider the massacres conducted by Burma's regime, the massacres in Sudan, and the government-directed mass starvation in North Korea and Zimbabwe.

There are certain things about the worst of human nature that will never change. All we can do is try to insure that the worst among us do not gain power over millions. Democracy, and teaching democracy, remain our best shot on that score. Americans should have the right to teach what we know best about insuring true human dignity, which is freedom from oppression. And we should encourage all governments valuing democracy to do the same.
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