Democracy and its dilemmas – World Watcher

Llewellyn D. Howell

HAS AMERICA LOST ITS WAY? In the aftermath of World War II, America immediately became the champion of the oppressed, slugging away at “Godless communism” on behalf of U.S.-style democracy. Washington divided the world not between communism and capitalism, but between communism and democracy, portraying the Soviet Union as a nation where individuals had no role in the selection of their government, and even for a few years argued that colonialism should be ended. Our case was that participatory democracy was the solution to the ills of the developing world.

This all changed in 1948 as the Soviets drew their line in the sand through Europe and began to threaten the Western European states. To help save France, our oldest ally, the U.S. dropped its support of the Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh in favor of alliance-making with all those who opposed communism, no matter what their flavor.

This drift in American strategic thinking, away from democratizing the world to delay in favor of immediate security, was best represented by the thinking of Jean Kirkpatrick, ambassador to the United Nations in the Reagan Administration, who sought to distinguish between “totalitarianism” and “authoritarianism” in separating allies from enemies in the Cold War. Totalitarians were those who controlled all aspects of life in their countries, while authoritarians were those whose politics were rigid hierarchies, but various other aspects of life, such as the economy, were left to some form of less-controlling philosophy. Through the end of the Cold War in 1989, the u.s. stayed this course with the argument that the opportunities for democracy would develop in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s demise. As long as America remained the bastion of democracy at home, its example would present the world the ultimate political alternative.

The expansion of democracy faltered on a number of counts. Primary among these was the huge and still-developing demand for oil, which came primarily from countries that happened to have nondemocratic and even antidemocratic traditions and cultures.

There was genuine sentiment in the Clinton Administration to promote the expansion of democracy around the world, and, indeed, there was an expansion during Pres. Bill Clinton’s eight years in office, particularly in Latin America, but elsewhere as well. However, it did not occur in the Islamic world, especially among those nations that overlay oil. Saudi Arabia is the prime case in the argument that the U.S. desire to see democracy expanded is confused at best, hypocritical at worst.

As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has noted on numerous occasions, Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally and critical oil source for the Western world, has one of the most-repressive regimes on the planet, rivaling North Korea and Myanmar. Its repression and treatment of women is never the subject of policy directives from the U.S. government. Columnist Michael Barone rifled a recent article “Our Enemies the Saudis” and noted that not only do they run a totalitarian regime, but they are actively supporting the export of that totalitarianism around the world. With their political philosophy based on Wahhabi Islamism, it is difficult to criticize this lack of democracy without directing the critical comments at the religion.

There could be an argument that the U.S. can’t change the behavior of every other state and that we have to lead with the example that we set at home. Here, too, we have gone astray. It began with the painfully obvious 2000 presidential election in which Florida miserably botched the counting of voters’ desires. Then, the highest court in the land voted on apparently partisan lines to put in place the loser–by 500,000 votes–of the national popular count. Try explaining this to foreigners (or anyone, for that matter).

Democracy isn’t just voting, though. The attacks of Sept. 11 have created another domestic dilemma in determining who has a right to a trial. The rights of citizenship in democratic America are being challenged by the Bush Administration for those Americans who have been caught up in the maelstrom of Islamic fundamentalism and radicalism. The numbers (only a few) aren’t the issue. If some Americans can be denied their right to a legal defense and a trial by their peers, the democratic shield held so high by the U.S. for so long has been breached.

Condoleeza Rice, the Bush Administration’s National Security Advisor, has begun to argue that part of the purpose of removing Saddam Hussein from power is to enable a “democratization” of Iraq. The U.S., she said in a Financial Times interview, will be “completely devoted” to the reconstruction of Iraq as a unified, democratic state. Given Pres. Bush’s long-standing opposition to “nation-building” of any kind, his devotion to this new intent is highly questionable. The use of democracy as a justification flies in the face of both logic and the facts.

If the spread of democracy is central, rather than peripheral, in American foreign policy, Saudi Arabia should be the target rather than Iraq. Saudi Arabia is actively spreading the antidemocratic message around the world; Iraq is not. Iraq is at least a secular state, shaped in the traditions of the West (where democracy is a relatively new phenomenon), while Saudi Arabia organizes its society around deeply imbedded religious beliefs that are impervious to rationality. Women actually have some rights in Iraq.

What about the aftermath of Saddam’s removal from power? Sixty percent of Iraqis are Shiite Muslims. Shia Islamism, like that of the Wahhabi sect, holds that the political has to be subjugated to the religious. Both forms of Islamism propose and justify a highly hierarchical order and the use of Koranic punishments to deal with offenders of religious law, whether or not they are Muslims themselves. To bring that majority of Iraqis into a democratic system will require that the Bush Administration convince the Shiites to alter their beliefs about political organization and adhere to the American ideals of democratic organization and human rights.

Can they do this? Will they? As the Bush Administration backtracks on citizens’ rights in America, sits idly while critical allies flaunt antidemocratic values, and opposes democracy in international institutions at every turn, believing that democracy in Iraq is a real objective of the Administration becomes an onerous effort. Then again, the right to disbelieve pronouncements of the leadership is just another of the many dilemmas of democracy.

Llewellyn D. Howell, International Affairs Editor of USA Today, is a senior research fellow at the Pacific Asian Management Institute, University of Hawaii at Manoa, and professor emeritus at Thunderbird, The American Graduate School of International Management, Glendale, Ariz.

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