That Neighborly Admonition

Democracy has made rapid gains worldwide in the past couple of decades. Yet this club of free nations often won't follow the US in criticizing dictatorial holdouts.

Monday was a good example. President Bush asked the 34-member Organization of American States (OAS) to act together to monitor democratic trends and to check the region's autocrats. But Latin America demurs. It cares more about not appearing to be a US stooge than whether a neighbor such as Venezuela becomes a Cuba-style political black hole for the region.

The Bush administration is partly to blame. It's largely ignored the Western Hemisphere since 9/11. It's not done enough to prop up faltering democratic leaders, although it does have the Millennium Challenge Account initiative, which aims to increase aid to nations that show a commitment to govern justly. Bolivia, Honduras, and Nicaragua are slated for such aid.

The US needs OAS support. And that group can't remain uncritical of Venezuela's increasingly undemocratic leader Hugo Chávez without losing legitimacy as a leadership forum.

A similar case can be made for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Its meeting next year will be chaired by Burma, where a military junta has suppressed democracy. The US and Europe, which usually attend these get-togethers, threaten to boycott the meeting. ASEAN refuses to stand up to Burma's generals, or deny it this leadership post.

Africa already has a system for reviewing the democracy standards of many of its nations. But it is hesitating to criticize Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe as it becomes a police state.

These regional groups need more backbone to speak out against their errant neighbors. The US can't be a unilateral democracy cheerleader.

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