Democracy at home & abroad

Bold. Visionary. Idealistic. Courageous. These were just a few of the adjectives used by supporters to describe President George W. Bush’s November 6 speech before the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Washington, D.C. Grandiose, hypocritical, simplistic, even cynical were the words deployed by skeptics. In his speech, Bush compared the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the transformation of Iraq into a democracy to the long struggle for freedom the West waged first against fascism and then against the Soviet Union in the cold war. Ronald Reagan’s stand against the evil empire is the paradigm. “The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution,” Bush said.

President Bush can be eloquent, and the vision of a more democratic world outlined in his speech is compelling. “We believe that liberty is the direction of history,” he said. “And we believe that freedom, the freedom we prize, is not for us alone. It is the right and the capacity of all mankind.”

What is not compelling is Bush’s history of enunciating similarly bold initiatives only to abandon them when political sacrifice is required. It was only a few months ago, for example, that the president unveiled his “road map” to peace for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying he was going to put his prestige and authority on the line and use his powers of persuasion to bring about a cessation to the violence. Given Bush’s obsequiousness toward Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, most knowledgeable observers rightly doubted the administration’s commitment to acting as a fair broker in a notoriously intractable dispute. Within a month, it was evident that the so-called road map led nowhere. Eloquent words not followed by action create only doubt about the integrity of the speaker.

Much of what the administration claimed about the necessity for war with Iraq is now discredited, so it is not surprising that many doubt the president when he issues rhetorical assurances about America’s dedication to liberty and democracy. In his speech to the NED, for example, Bush criticized the history of U.S. support for dictatorial regimes in the Middle East. That was good, even surprising. What implications does such an admission have for our current relationship with authoritarian governments such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt? Little, apparently. Bush issued only the vaguest of reprimands to these “allies,” and there were no specific suggestions for how Saudi Arabia or Egypt could be held accountable for making progress toward democracy in the future.

Commentators across the Middle East were quick to point to this double standard, and to the hesitancy of the United States to condemn Israeli violations of human rights and liberty. The Bush administration’s willingness to coddle an increasingly autocratic Vladimir Putin and to turn a blind eye to Russia’s war in Chechnya was also noted. Nor is it possible to forget the contempt the Bush administration had for the UN Security Council. The president speaks well of democracy in the abstract, but when asked to forge a consensus among real democratic states-or between political parties in Congress-he is rather less keen on the democratic virtues of persuasion and compromise.

Are the cold war and the war against terrorism really analogous in the way Bush suggests? Wasn’t the lesson of the cold war that containment, rather than military engagement, worked? As U.S. casualties mount in Iraq and the prospect of a relatively short, smooth transition to democracy dims, the president is confronted with the manifold contradictions of his policies. Having convinced the American people war was justified because Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (wmd) posed an imminent threat, he must now explain why no wmd have been found. His answer has been to recast the reasons for war. Now Bush claims that transforming Iraq and the rest of the Middle East into democracies is the best way to fight terrorism. Yet the occupation of Iraq appears to be in disarray, the United States has never been less popular in the Muslim world, and the administration’s failure to speak honestly to the American people of the cost of this war, both monetarily and in human life, has undermined popular support for staying the course. It doesn’t help that the day Bush delivered his speech boasting of the willingness of Americans to make sacrifices, it was announced that U.S. troop strength in Iraq would be reduced in time for next year’s elections. With fewer U.S. troops, only limited Iraqi participation, and still little international or UN presence, the “policing” of Iraq does not promise to get easier.

Listening to the president’s ringing call to spread democracy abroad-even his praise for “labor unions and independent newspapers and broadcast media”-it is hard to forget how he conducts himself as a democratic leader at home. In prosecuting the war on terrorism, the president has denied the most basic constitutional rights to U.S. citizens simply by designating them “enemy combatants.” The extended detention of illegal immigrants raises similar concerns, as does the open-ended imprisonment of suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay. Politically, Bush has done little to bring together a nation deeply divided by the last presidential election. At every opportunity he has acted to promote the interests and placate the passions of his conservative base. From judicial nominations to environmental regulations and tax policy, Bush has governed as one of the most partisan presidents in recent memory. Republicans have not hesitated to question the patriotism of anyone who criticizes the administration’s conduct of the war on terrorism, nor have they been circumspect in exploiting their majority status in Congress. Reports from Capitol Hill suggest that the acrimony and mistrust between the political parties has reached a worrying intensity. Next year’s presidential election promises to be an ugly culture war, with both parties pandering to their core constituencies.

Bringing democracy to Iraq and beyond will require more humility, and a greater tolerance for compromise, than the Bush administration gives evidence of possessing (see E. J. Dionne Jr., page 8). Perhaps it could start to acquire those virtues by first practicing them at home.

Published in the 2003-11-21 issue: 
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