Democracy When It Suits?

Support for democracy is a pillar of US foreign policy, but it's a pillar that can wobble a bit under certain circumstances.

Those circumstances include: (1) a democratically elected leader at odds with US interests, or (2) an unelected leader who sides with Washington.

Hugo Chavez of Venezuela fit the first bill perfectly. He sidled up to Fidel Castro and others on the US enemies list. Moreover, he had unmistakable authoritarian tendencies.

Washington has had a lot of explaining to do since a two-day coup briefly removed Mr. Chavez from office. That undemocratic turn of events was hardly decried, at first, by the US. Chavez was said to have caused his own downfall. But the State Department has since scurried to get on the right side of the issue, affirming that the US, like the rest of the hemisphere's governments, never favored an unconstitutional change of power.

But will it favor an unconstitutional perpetuation in power? That's what Gen. Pervez Musharraf has in the works in Pakistan. The general, who seized power in a nonviolent coup in 1999, is holding a referendum at the end of April. He alone will be on the ballot, and voters can say "yes" to five more years of his rule, or "no." Clearly, he didn't want his future left in the hands of the popularly elected parliament, as required by law.

But Musharraf has been a stalwart US ally in the war against terrorism. Washington has had little to say about his undemocratic ploy, other than to note that its constitutionality should be decided by Pakistan's courts.

That's a mistake. During the cold war, the US often said: "He's a dictator, but he's our dictator." Times have changed. Better to let even autocrats who are on "our side" know that their countries will in the long run be much better off with democratic processes.

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