Democracy is more than a soundbite

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Oppressed of the world, take heart - a soundbite will soon set you free. Or at least, that is the way some people think. Supporters of President Bush argue that his advocacy of democracy has provoked political earthquakes that are transforming the Middle East. They believe the steps toward more representative government in Palestine and Lebanon are as much a result of the administration's policies as the elections in Afghanistan and Iraq. They predict that democracy will spread relentlessly to other countries and that the regimes in Syria, Iran, and North Korea are all ready to fall.

The president's making a priority of democracy is welcome. He is not the first president to voice support for democracy, however, and it remains to be seen whether this is a catchphrase or really a rejection of past policies. Presidents Reagan and the first President Bush, for instance, put things like stability and combating communism ahead of human rights.

Those presidents did not oppose democracy, but saying you support something is not the same as taking the steps to sustain it. Despite the growth of democracy, more than half of the world's people still live in countries that are either partially or not at all free, according to the human rights organization Freedom House. The spread of freedom is never easy, automatic, or without cost.

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A hundred years ago, no one lived in a country with universal suffrage and multiparty elections. Freedom has been on the march for much of the past century. It has not picked up its pace because it became the default rationale for invading a country with no weapons of mass destruction, or ties to Al Qaeda or 9/11. To the extent there really is a democratic ferment in the Middle East, globalization has brought it about. When news of events - whether in Tiananmen Square, China, or in Ukraine's Independence Square - is spread around the world with such speed, it results in impact and inspiration. Journalists don't like to write that story because discovering the precise moment that is a hinge of history makes better copy. And those that assert Bush pushed open the door and ushered in the new era seem to assume only good things will happen as a result.

And what is happening in the two countries the administration claims as its biggest successes? In Afghanistan, 60 percent of the economy comes from producing 87 percent of the world's heroin. In Iraq, the insurgents demonstrate daily that it is easier to destroy a repressive regime than to create a democratic one supported by all the people. It remains to be seen whether a Shiite majority can rule and respect the rights of the Sunni and Kurdish minorities. Democracy may not survive for long after US troops are withdrawn and some form of Islamic law is implemented.

The future is even harder to predict in Lebanon where, as in the Palestinian case, the democratic outburst was sparked by the death of a political leader. Following the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the difference of opinion about the Syrian presence in Lebanon was made starkly clear. A demonstration in support of Syria staying drew 500,000 Shiite Muslims last week. Those holding the opposite view answered on Monday with an even bigger gathering of Druzes, Christians, and Sunni Muslims demanding that Syria leave.

This deep division is born out by a recent Zogby poll that found an emerging consensus among Lebanese on some questions, but a deep sectarian divide on other key issues. The poll also showed far more Lebanese believe either Israel or the US is responsible for Hariri's murder than blame Syria.

Syria is now withdrawing its forces. But what will happen if the civil war in Lebanon resumes? Since the president demanded Syria's withdrawal, will he restore order with American troops? The last time the United States intervened in Lebanon, 241 American troops died in a suicide bombing.

Not many among the Iraq invasion coalition appear ready for a new adventure. The Bush administration could turn to the United Nations, where John Bolton is about to be confirmed as US ambassador. He is well known for having no use for any international treaty, organization, or operation that does not conform totally to his definition of American interests without accommodation for anyone else's.

In the long run, more democracy will serve US interests, but the price of getting it may exceed what an overextended superpower is willing to pay. Especially since it will cost more than a soundbite and hubris.

Dennis Jett, former US ambassador to Peru and Mozambique, is dean of the International Center at the University of Florida.

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