The Nuances of Democracy

Spreading freedom keeps getting more complicated.

Since the attacks of 9/11, George Bush has tried to turn every meeting of world leaders into a discussion of the global threat of terrorism with varying degrees of success. He had no trouble this weekend at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah dominated the sessions. Despite the sniping from Jacques Chirac and Vladimir Putin, the Bush foreign-policy team was able to get the leaders of the world’s largest economies to cast the new fighting in the context of the wider war on terrorism. The statement blamed the militants for the start of the six-day conflict, saying they were intent on destabilizing the entire region and more specifically were setting back democratic progress in Lebanon.

The administration prefers to talk about the larger war on terror rather than the specifics of a conflict. When presented with a setback in Iraq, they have struggled to reframe the debate in the long march against Islamo-fascism. Bush aides did that with Israel. In the past, if Israeli soldiers were kidnapped out of Gaza or Lebanon, the international community would have held a debate about Israeli settlements or occupation. But Israel has now moved out of those areas, making the recent attacks about the larger issue of Israel’s right to exist. While the French and Russians could debate the proportionality of the Israeli response, they couldn’t quibble with the underlying need for retaliation against ideological extremists.

This is a “crisis that is clarifying the choices,” Secretary of State Rice said Sunday on ABC’s This Week. “What you have here is that extremist forces—Hamas, Hezbollah, the Iranians, and the Syrians—recognize that they are facing the emergence of a different kind of Middle East in which democratic and moderate sources will dominate.” According to White House allies and foreign-policy advisers, the Bush team is content, for the moment, to look concerned but let Israel continue to batter Hezbollah. They are particularly encouraged that the crisis has focused the minds within other Arab states. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan have all condemned Hezbollah. Administration officials also argue that Hamas’ extremism has made it harder for Arab states to continue supporting the Palestinian cause.

It would seem like good news that Arab nations have put aside their historic knee-jerk support of terrorism against Israel. The problem for the Bush administration, though, is that gaining Arab allies complicates all that high-minded talk about the spread of democracy. Or it should anyway, as the two are in conflict. The Arab governments speaking out against Hezbollah are not doing so because they want to see the different kind of Middle East of which Secretary Rice speaks. They were prompted by the growing influence of Iran and Shiite Muslims in Iraq and across the region. If the United States rewards them for their stance now, then it engages in the identical old-style diplomatic and political calculations that Bush and Rice have been arguing against for two years. “Administrations of both stripes—Democrats and Republican—traded what they thought was security and stability and turned a blind eye to the absence of democratic forces, to the absence of pluralism in the region,” said Rice on Sunday. Since Bush and Rice have promised to reverse the practices of the last 60 years, will they renew their calls for democracy and pluralism in Saudi Arabia and Egypt? It seems inevitable that they will not and in holding off will make the same calculations their forebears did: that temporary alliances sometimes require compromises.

The attacks by Hezbollah and Hamas demonstrate that democracy and terrorism are not mutually exclusive, as the administration has argued. Hamas has a majority in the Palestinian parliament and controls the government. Hezbollah holds a fifth of the seats in the Lebanese parliament. Now, to build international support against those groups, the United States must make alliances with nondemocratic Arab nations. The choices do seem clear, as Dr. Rice says, but the situation does not seem to be clarifying.