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Democracies Feel a Chill Wind From U.S.

Author: Joe Siegle
August 18, 2002
Los Angeles Times

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Before Sept. 11, one concern about President Bush's veteran foreign policy team was whether it still clung to world views shaped by the Cold War. Could it adapt to emerging realities of the new era? The terrorist attacks on the U.S. seemed to make this debate irrelevant, starkly demonstrating the extent to which the world had changed. Indeed, within weeks, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell declared that we had now entered the post-post-Cold War era.

Lately, though, many in the administration seem to have reverted to the old Cold War rules, particularly in their support— or lack of support— for democracy abroad. This shift has serious implications for our national security. Consider the following:

* In the Middle East, Bush has called for Palestinian democracy. But this would be a peculiar kind of democracy, as the U.S. has already announced that Yasser Arafat should not be elected. Aside from the inconsistency of denying citizens the right to choose their own president, this policy risks undermining the credibility of any new Palestinian leader with the electorate, thereby diminishing the prospect of negotiating a meaningful peace settlement with Israel. More generally, it signals to the Arab world that we believe in democratic processes only so far as they increase U.S. leverage.

* In Pakistan, the U.S. has looked the other way while President Pervez Musharraf has systematically dismantled democratic institutions— first by extending his unelected stay in office by five years through a trumped-up referendum and now by altering the constitution so as to bar opposition leaders, subordinate the parliament to his authority and severely restrict media.

* In Afghanistan, more than 1,500 delegates representing Afghanistan's broad ethnic diversity gathered in June for the country's highly anticipated loya jirga to select the country's first post-Taliban leader. The assembly opened with a lively exchange of viewpoints, suggesting that participatory governance was perhaps not impossible in this war-torn nation. Nearly 1,200 delegates signed a petition nominating the popular former king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, as the leader best able to reconcile the ethnically fractious and broken country. Did the U.S. cheer this fledgling exercise in democracy?

Far from it. Fearing that the support for Zaher Shah would upset well-orchestrated plans to have Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai selected as president, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad pressed the former king to renounce his interest in anything more than a figurehead role. Leaving nothing to chance, Khalilzad then announced the king's intentions two hours before Zaher Shah made his statement. In the end, loya jirga delegates left the proceedings disillusioned with their first brush with democracy.

* Closer to home, in April, the U.S. welcomed a coup attempt against democratically elected Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose erratic behavior and anti-U.S rhetoric has angered the administration. U.S. officials, it turned out, had held a number of meetings with coup plotters before the short-lived rebellion. And once Chavez was ousted, the administration was quick to back the new government— despite having agreed to an Inter-American Democratic Charter seven months earlier that explicitly rejected coups as a legitimate means of succession.

* In Bolivia, during the run-up to the June elections there, U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha warned Bolivians that electing leftist firebrand Evo Morales would jeopardize U.S. aid. This admonition was echoed by Otto J. Reich, the U.S. assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs. But the statements backfired. Responding with the independence typical of democratic citizens around the world, voters rallied behind Morales, sending his poll numbers sharply up and propelling him into a congressional runoff with Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a U.S.-educated millionaire. Earlier this month, the Bolivian Congress selected Sanchez, with the assistance of heavy U.S. lobbying.

These examples demonstrate clearly that, as in the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy is not terribly concerned with fostering democratic institutions abroad. We seem to be making the same faulty assumption: that friendly autocrats offer better prospects for stability in the developing world. What we should have learned from our Cold War support to the shah in Iran, Sese Seko Mobutu in Zaire, Samuel Doe in Liberia, Mohamed Siad Barre in Somalia, a string of Latin American generals and others, however, is that this policy almost inevitably comes back to haunt us. These "stable dictatorships" are, in fact, rarely very stable. And when they collapse, frequently with considerable violence, the tempests they spawn can engulf whole regions. Meanwhile, the U.S. has earned the enmity of the repressed population.

The approach the U.S. has taken in these recent cases also seems to overlook how much the world has changed since the Cold War. According to Freedom House's annual Freedom in the World survey, two-thirds of the states in the world today are democracies— nearly double the number in 1988. The extent to which the global landscape has democratized provides an enormous strategic advantage to the U.S. Democracies have a remarkable record of not going to war with one another. The more democracy expands around the world, therefore, the better are the prospects for a global democratic peace. Democracies also, by and large, do not breed terrorists. Recall that the Sept. 11 terrorists were all from nondemocratic countries. Democracies are vastly more committed to combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Finally, democracies perform better economically, growing 30% faster than nondemocracies, on average.

In this light, building a world of democracies is the overarching race we are in. The more steadfastly we promote democratization in the roughly 46 remaining authoritarian regimes, the faster we can close the weak link in the global governance architecture. In a forthcoming book, former Ambassador Mark Palmer sets the target of a dictator-free world by 2025. Recognizing the strategic value of this goal, our current policies should be judged by how well they are moving us toward that aim. Our opponents in this race— the emerging networks of terrorists and purveyors of weapons of mass destruction— are counting on the cover provided by remaining closed states to advance their destabilizing aims.

It is to our advantage to assiduously encourage democratic processes, even when it may seem inconvenient. We cannot expect liberal democracies to bloom overnight, but we should press for consistent improvement in the direction of greater openness, political participation and economic opportunity. The administration's decision last week to withhold new aid to Egypt in reaction to its fraudulent conviction of human rights advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a step in the right direction. The world has become too small to ignore blatantly unaccountable leadership.

Undercutting democratic leaders with whom we disagree or propping up undemocratic regimes with which we share interests undermines the strategic objective of creating a global system of democratic states that adhere to norms of rule of law, religious tolerance and the delegitimization of terrorism.

We can win this race to define the future, but we can't run it the way we did during the Cold War.


Joseph Siegle is the Douglas Dillon fellow with the, Council on Foreign Relations.

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