It seems strange to the rest of the world, but we Americans can’t seem to stop talking about how other countries should be democratic like we are. From George Washington’s boast of being “irresistibly excited whensoever, in any country, I see an oppressed nation unfurl the banners of freedom,” to Woodrow Wilson’s vow to make the world safe for democracy, to George W. Bush’s second inaugural, our presidents have invoked the aspiration to expand self-government ever outward. The expansion of democracy is for us what empire was for the great world powers before us: a rallying cry that makes us proud and keeps us unified — while also serving our interests.
As ideal and slogan, though, the creed of exporting democracy differs from the creed of expanding empire in one important respect: When we fail to follow it, we look hypocritical. An empire that extends itself selectively is just being prudent about its own limitations. A republic that supports democratization selectively is another matter. President Bush’s recent speech to the United Nations, in which he assailed seven repressive regimes, was worthy of applause — but it also opened the door to the fair criticism that he was silent about the dozens of places where the United States colludes with dictators of varying degrees of nastiness.
Pakistan is a case in point. As Pervez Musharraf pursued his bid to be re-elected as president this weekend, the government jailed key opposition leaders and blocked others, like the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, from entering the country.