Archive for February, 2006

How Smart Is Our Wish For Democracy?

[Originally published in the Valley News.]

For years, United Nations policy for the underdeveloped world has been to support “self-determination” – the notion that all people should be able to determine the kind of government they wish to live under. It’s hard to argue with that.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration’s policy of promoting democracy creates potential conflicts with the principle of self-determination. When we say we want to see the rise of democracy in the world, we cannot achieve that without free elections. Those free elections provide previously disenfranchised citizens with the mechanism for self-determination, which doesn’t always produce democracy.

The United States has not always been enamored of either self-determination or democracy. It has often preferred the stability that comes with entrenched, anti-democratic governments friendly to the United States over the unknown or unacceptable proclivities of the forces aligned against them. Think of what happened to Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran the 1950s, Salvador Allende in Chile in the 1970s and various other leaders around the world who enjoyed popular support but were deposed with U.S. support.

This approach was approved by many European nations eager for world stability. Leaders of those nations apparently have not changed their minds; European countries have shown little appetite for President Bush’s drive to democratize the world. For them, the logical outcome of such a policy can be seen in the results of the recent free and democratic elections in Palestine, where self-determination has not led to a democracy of our liking.

U.S. policy in the Muslim world today creates as many problems as it solves. When the White House began to call for democracy in the Middle East, it displayed little understanding of the history of the region, but instead based its policy on the rather idealistic premise that all people yearn for democracy – that is, democracy as we know and understand it.

The dominance of Islam, which is essentially anti-democratic, has not supported the evolution of the kinds of personal attitudes and institutions that would naturally support successful transition to democratic governance. That has put the White House in the position of pushing democracy in a region where democracy is something of an anathema.

Are we going to continue to promote democracy through free elections in a region that may prove immune to it? Are we going to support regime change only if the results are “democratic” and to our liking, or are we going to accept whatever comes out of the process? Finally, how are we going to mollify the European preference for stability over democracy?

The second part of this problem lies in whether or not we are going to be even-handed in our push for democracy. Are we going to push for regime change wherever people are oppressed, or are we going overlook repressive but friendly states and limit our focus to hostile countries?

f you look at the Muslim world today, there are no evolved and stable democracies. Turkey wants to be part of Europe. Who knows what will happen in Afghanistan and Iraq? Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Persian Gulf states and the Arab states in North Africa are not now practicing self-determination. They fit the category of entrenched, anti-democratic governments friendly to or dependent on the United States. While we push for democracy in currently or formerly hostile countries such as Iraq, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan, we are much less zealous about the crusade in important states where we think stability is our primary goal, including Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan and Egypt.

One of the U.S. policies that motivates al-Qaida and its allies against us is our continued support for these anti-democratic states. Clearly, what al-Qaida really seeks is the kind of self-determination where a newly “democratized” population votes out its old enemies as well as the friends of America and votes in the Muslim theocracy that radical Islamists really want. Democratic elections in much of the Muslim world are far more likely to produce that kind of result than the “democracy” we seek and of which we approve.

So, we push for regime change in some places and not in others – a perfect example of “realpolitik”, or foreign policy based on political expediency rather than ideals or ethics. America cannot hope to improve its standing in the Muslim world if it is idealistically pushing democracy in Iran, Syria and Libya while actively supporting anti-democratic governments such as those in Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

This hypocritical inconsistency can only bolster the morale and motivation and improve the standing of al-Qaida and its radical Muslim allies. That will make our struggle with terrorists all the more difficult. Our current policy is not serving our national interests.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Lebanon and Iran. He lives in Williston, Vt.

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