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The next president has to promote democracy better

Amid democratic recession, the US must rethink its freedom agenda.

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That statement is especially revealing because it is not just aspirational, but prescriptive: Islamic governments should listen to the people's hopes. His phrasing stems, in part, from the Republican Party's tendency to lean towards the libertarian in ideology, which assumes that democracies will flourish if authoritarian rulers step out of the way or are forced from power by American might.

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If it were that simple, then promoting the ballot through the bullet and removing "evil" regimes would make sense. As we have seen in Baghdad and Kabul, however, forging democracy overseas is more complicated.

Instead of focusing on top-down advocacy through pressure on repressive governments, we must work within societies that lack democratic traditions. From the bottom up, we can help create the conditions for a societal agreement.

The next administration's democracy promotion strategy should reflect this in four ways:

First, it must publicly repudiate Iraq as the model for promoting liberal democracy, which cannot develop in the inevitable chaos that follows military intervention.

Second, Washington has to strengthen its capacity to build a basic democratic framework in places that lack it through global educational initiatives that like checks and balances and protection of minority rights. Building democracy where it does not yet exist requires an understanding of what the system is and how it works.

Third, we must learn to recognize when societies are ripe for change but are held back by authoritarian governments. As the world's superpower, the US has a responsibility to use non-military influence to ease such governments aside.

Finally, we must understand that, given the choice, not all societies interpret democracy as we do in the West. For example, as John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed note in "Who Speaks for Islam?" liberal democrats in the Muslim world do not "require a separation of church and state."

For all its flaws, the Bush administration recognizes that the current course of international aid is unsustainable. Tyranny breeds extremism, while effective promotion of democracy will undercut it.

Rethinking our approach to democracy promotion will ensure that the noble ideals of the "freedom agenda" do not end with the Bush administration and maybe – just maybe – will help prevent the kind of relapse that we saw in Beirut.

William Mensch Evans is a research associate for US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.