December 3, 2007

DEMOCRACY IS NOT A PANACEA

President Bush, Secretary of State Rice and others in the administration never miss an opportunity to trumpet their dedication to democracy as a panacea for the world’s problems. Forget for the moment the hypocrisy of, at the same time, having friends and allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan — hardly epitomes of proud democratic governments. More important, however, is the big question: Do we really want to expand what passes for democracy in much or the world and particularly in the Middle East? I think not.

About twelve years ago, an election in Algeria provided a case in point. The Islamic fundamentalist faction won the election, but the prior military government negated the results.. This writer somewhat shamefacedly cheered this move. Half of me cried out that, in a democracy, the majority should prevail; the other half that the winners would so pervert the democratic process that no opposition party would ever obtain a free franchise again.

The same dilemma exists today. If really free elections were held in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even Jordan, we would without question end up with radical Islamist governments probably antagonistic to U.S. interests and almost certainly dedicated to making certain that no future “democratic” election would prevent perpetuation of their power. Iran provides a clear-cut example of the direction these countries would take.

We all approve of democracy as the best form of government, but the problem lies in a slippery definition of democracy. The simple fact that a country holds an election and that people vote, does not a democracy make. If you need proof of the pudding, just look at recent “democratic:” elections in Egypt, Iran and Pakistan.

Perhaps the best dissection of this dilemma was strangely enough provided in a speech given about fiftee years back at Rice University by James A. Baker III. It was entitled, “Conflict and Cooperation in the Post-Cold War Era.” With admiration, I quote some excerpts:

“… the emergence of democratic government as a near universal ideal has offered extremists a convenient tool by which to generate popular support and seize political power.The idea that democracy actually feeds movements based on religious, ethnic or linguistic particularism is perhaps the supreme irony of the current era. In the former Soviet Bloc and the Middle East, ultra-nationalists and Islamic extremists have assumed, with some success, the rhetorical mantle of democrats. Individuals and groups are using the democratic process to arrive at power, only then to monopolize it.”

Baker then went on to describe the sine qua non’s of a vibrant democracy. We should not be fooled into believing that the existence of elections define democracy. Elections only open a door. Democracy is essentially a way of life. There are certain basic requirements.

First, the population and its leaders must recognize that every individual has certain inalienable rights regardless of his religion, ethnicity, language or political point of view. Difficult as it may be, there must be a large degree of tolerance for differences, particularly those on such
fundamental concepts as the meaning of life or the existence of a deity.

Other essentials include the following:

A free press and the freedom of assembly. Without a free press,you have an uninformed or, worse, a misinformed, populace. You can have as many elections as you like but, with a controlled press, you have voters without a knowledgeable basis on which to vote. The recent vote in Russia was obviously not democratic for, while there was no overt coercion, the Government totally controlled the media, which spent months extolling the virtues of Putin.Tha ttype of voting does not indicate a democracy. Similarly, without the freedom to assemble to present one’s views to our leaders, democracy as we know it does not exist.

A reasonably educated population. A free press is valueless if people cannot read. Democracy does not require a country full of Harvard scholars. It does, however, require that a sizeable majority have at least the equivalent of a high school education, so that they can understand what they read or see on TV and can discuss governmental policies with friends or associates. Learned debate is not necessary, but the ability to absorb important information is.

A substantial middle class. Countries with too wide a gap between rich and poor –– countries with a tiny upper crust of wealthy individuals and a thin layer of middle class — have problems creating a viable democracy for any extended period of time. Ultimately, the poor get restless and stability is endangered.

At least two political parties with divergent views. We have all read in the press of single party elections in Russia and elsewhere where one candidate gets 98 percent of the vote. Saddam Hussein’s election and the elections of Yasser Arafat are cases in point. In spite of claims to the
contrary, nobody believes they were democratically elected. They weren’t. Unless you have at least two clear-cut choices in an election, the election is a sham.

These are the essential elements of a democratic culture. Without them, you may have a formal democracy, but you do not have asubstantive one. Whenever you hear political drumbeats for democratizing countries with no traditional or cultural dcemocratic history, take a second look
— and a third,

Will our experiment in Iraq lead to a stable substantive democracy.? The jury is still out but, unless the criteria given above are first realized, the chances for success are slim. President Bush claims that winning a war is hard work. Creating our kind of democracy is even harder.

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