The Pursuit of Democracy

What Bush gets wrong about nation-building.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, first lady Laura Bush, and U.S. President George W. Bush

The case for democracy is “self-evident,” as someone once put it. The case for the world’s most powerful democracy to take as its mission the spreading of democracy around the world is pretty self-evident, too: What’s good for us is good for others. Those others will be grateful. A world full of democracies created or protected with our help ought to be more peaceful and prosperous and favorably disposed toward us. That world will be a better neighborhood for us than a world of snarling dictatorships.

There is no valid case against democracy. You used to hear a lot that democracy is not suitable for some classes of foreigners: simply incompatible with the cultures of East Asia (because deference to authority is too ingrained there), or the Arab Middle East (because everybody is a religious fanatic), or Africa (because they’re too “tribal,” or too predisposed to rule by a “big daddy,”… or something). But this line of argument has gone out of fashion, pushed offstage by free and fair elections in some surprising places. Even those who still harbor doubts about whether democracy is possible in this place or that—and even those who think that any democracy achieved in such places is likely to be a real mess—don’t generally oppose the attempt. As someone else once said, “Good government is no substitute for self-government.”

But the case against spreading democracy—especially through military force—as a mission of the U.S. government is also pretty self-evident, and lately it’s been getting more so. Government, even democratic government, exists for the benefit of its own citizens, not that of foreigners. American blood and treasure should not be spent on democracy for other people. Or, short of that absolute, there are limits to the blood and treasure that the United States should be expected to spend on democracy elsewhere, and the very nature of war makes that cost hard to predict and hard to limit.

Furthermore, the encouraging discovery that free elections are possible in unexpected places has a discouraging corollary: If tolerance and pluralism and suchlike Western values are not essential preconditions for democratic elections, they are not the necessary result of elections either. By definition, democracy produces a government that the people—or some plurality of the people—want, at least at that moment. But it may not produce the kind of government that we wish they would want, or—more to the point—that we want.

The present debate over when to use American power in defense of democracies other than our own is at least more wholesome than the previous debate about using force to thwart or overthrow foreign democracies. The argument against tolerating Communist governments elected fair and square used to be that the election that brought them to office would likely be the last. “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people,” as Henry Kissinger famously put it in reference to the election of Salvador Allende in Chile. (And we didn’t just stand by and watch.) But today’s concern about what we might call “nasty democracy” (defined as election results we don’t like) is in some ways more profound and depressing. It is not that a regime will use democracy in the short run to stifle it in the long run (thus emboldening us to destroy democracy in order to save it). The danger is that democracy will reveal the people’s true and continuing preference for a society with no place for all the other Western liberal values that our founding document calls “self-evident” (equality, freedom to pursue happiness, and so on). Even worse, these societies may decide to export their distaste for Western values just as we try to export the values themselves—and they may not agonize, Western-style, over the distinction between violent and nonviolent means of persuasion.

Recent news has left us awash in examples: the triumph of Hamas (religious fanatics dedicated in both theory and practice to the destruction of Israel) in the Palestinian elections; the emergence of a similarly attractive group, the Muslim Brotherhood, as an electoral force in Egypt; and above all the result of the American-sponsored election in Iraq, which seems to be just about the opposite of the lion-and-lamb tranquility that democracy enthusiasts had hoped. The Bush administration denies a report in the New York Times that it is actively trying to undermine the Palestinian election result. And the evidence in the Times story did seem to describe a totally justified withdrawal of support more than anything like an old-fashioned CIA coup. But if these developments gave Bush any pause about his aggressive democratization project, he gave no sign of it Tuesday during his surprise drop-by in Afghanistan. From Bush’s description, that legendarily bloodthirsty land has been transformed into something like Minnesota. It’s a place where “men and women are respected” and “young girls can go to school” and “people are able to realize their dreams.” We shall see.

In his biography of Margaret Thatcher, the British journalist Hugo Young used the term “inspirational certainty” to describe the strength that some political leaders get from refusing to let anything give them pause or change their minds. Thatcher had it, and so did Ronald Reagan. Bush would like to have it. But on this particular issue, at least, he can’t because he actually has changed his mind. In the 2000 election, he opposed what was then called nation-building—and he opposed it for all the self-evident reasons. Now he supports it, for equally self-evident reasons. If the arguments for both sides of some policy question are self-evident, the correct answer must not be. But Bush avoids the trap of complication by taking his self-evident truths sequentially.

Bush parries any challenge to explain his change of views with the simple assertion that Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything. It’s easy to see how that day might have changed his opinion about the urgency of the war on terrorism. But how exactly is it supposed to have changed his opinion about the aggressive pursuit of democracy as a tactic in that war?

Democracy now stands as the only remaining official rationale for the Gulf War (which the administration insists is a battlefield in the larger war against terrorism). This is grimly amusing, given that George W. Bush’s Gulf War is really a continuation of his father’s, which was in defense of two feudal monarchies and had nothing to do with democracy.

We don’t want a President Hamlet, publicly rehearsing his doubts as he leads the nation into battle. But the men and women risking their lives for democracy in Iraq deserve at least a tiny sense that the president who sends them there has taken the trouble to consider the evidence and arguments against his policy—and that he knows why he rejects them.