Opinion

Can you imagine healthcare town halls in North Korea?

Despite raucous moments, we're witnessing a grand spectacle of democracy in action in America.

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For weeks now, members of Congress, cabinet officers, and even President Obama have been holding packed town-hall meetings on proposed healthcare reforms. Citizens have turned out in the thousands to listen and ask tough questions. Groups outside, both supportive and critical, wave placards and argue with one another.

Some critics tut-tut about all this, finding it unseemly. Indeed, there have been a few raucous and impolite moments. However, what we have been witnessing is a grand spectacle of democracy in action.

When the American president vows to make critical decisions of national consequence he cannot do so by fiat. He must garner support from a Congress of different political parties, and differing views within those parties. Legislators in turn must listen to hometown voters, millions of people of differing economic status; different ethnic and racial backgrounds, religions, and political persuasions. If the president and legislators are not sensitive to these views, the voters throw them out at the next election.

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All this goes on under the ­eagle-eyed scrutiny of a free press. Panelists on TV political talk shows criticize whomever they will. The military remains in its barracks, with not a whiff of a coup or a march upon the White House.

I hope North Korea's Kim Jong-il, Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei, and Gen. Than Shwe in Burma (Myanmar) are paying attention to this. They each run a government about as undemocratic as one can imagine. Elections there are tragic shams. When their people protest, their soldiers, secret police, and hired thugs beat the questioners back and throw the survivors in jail as political prisoners.

There is a dialogue in the US foreign-affairs community about the wisdom, or otherwise, of "engaging" with such brutal leaders. The undecided question is whether such engagement can nudge these tyrants in the direction of reform and a better life for their citizens or whether it simply gives them an aura of undeserved respectability.

Two interesting cases of such engagement have taken place while the US has been practising its own brand of democracy at home.

In early August, former President Clinton flew to North Korea on a "private" mission to secure the release of two American journalists sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for a relatively minor offense.

Days later, Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia flew to Burma to secure the release of an eccentric American sentenced to seven years of prison and hard labor for violating the house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

She is the political opponent of the ruling military junta, having spent 14 of the past 20 years under arrest. Although Ms. Suu Kyi played no role in the American's arrival at her lakeside home, she was sentenced to three years hard labor, commuted to 18 months of additional house arrest – conveniently timed to isolate her during planned elections next year. Senator Webb was also accorded the rare privilege of meeting with Suu Kyi and Than Shwe.

While these North Korea and Burma humanitarian missions were cast as nongovernmental, they could not have taken place without some fairly intensive back-channel greasing beforehand. Nor do such diplomatic forays take place without both sides having a good idea beforehand of what the outcome will be. The United States got its imprisoned Americans back. The leaders of North Korea and Burma got a lot of international visibility.

Meanwhile, the government in Iran is challenged by a newly ­emboldened opposition that has survived harsh attempts to muzzle it. From abroad it faces an edgy Israel, and a US president who says his patience will be running thin by year's end if the Tehran regime has not set its face against acquiring nuclear weaponry. It is a good bet that some secret back-channel "engagement" is going on somewhere between Tehran and Washington.

Political currents may be changing in North Korea, Burma, and Iran. But we should not anticipate their leaders soon setting up town-hall meetings and asking their people for tough questions.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly edition.

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