THE most assertive political force in the world today is the idea of democracy - and especially American democracy. A Swiss executive in charge of his firm's US operation protested the other day: ``Why is it Americans think they have the right to tell the rest of the world what to do?''
A fair complaint. It may be nearer true, if not at least more modest, to say that the idea of democracy has many forms, blending with national character and history. The British parliamentary system reflects its origins in class and labor tensions. France's democracy has a centralized, technocratic base. As a capital, Washington DC does not have the historical, economic, educational, or cultural dominance of a London or Paris. It was never the seat of an economic or military empire. Among American cities, Washington is not all that big or important. The bases of American strength are dispersed; they stand quite apart from its central government. Its businesses and universities, its agricultural regions and technological industries are scattered across the continent. Its churches and intellectual life are, constitutionally, separated from government. However one appraises American popular culture, it is perhaps America's chief global export. It represents the style, if not the content, of US social democracy.
It is a paradoxical strength of the US system that it does not allow too great an aggregation of power by any one sector, including any branch of its government.
How interesting, then, to consider George Bush's military and diplomatic posture against Saddam Hussein of Iraq. As his government's chief executive, Bush has public backing for initiative. But the public also wants a widened base of support - as Bush has sought - that might make war less likely.
Executive initiative does not mean freedom from accountability. Congress, reflecting public sentiment, already is uneasy about Bush's apparent readiness to attack Saddam's forces in Kuwait.
The debate over ``who has the right to declare war?'' is as old as the nation. Historian James Thomas Flexner, in George Washington: Anguish and Farewell, observes that in April, 1793, with England and the new French Republic at war and the US Congress in recess ``... [Secretary of State] Jefferson wrote his collaborator Congressman Madison ... that if the British made an effort to blockade France, `I suppose Congress would be called, because it is a justifiable cause of war, and, as the Executive cannot decide the question of war on the affirmative side, neither ought it to do so on the negative side, by preventing the competent body from deliberation on the question.''' President Washington opted for neutrality, and pro-French Jefferson joined in a unanimous Cabinet vote not to call Congress into session. Washington had enough to do with the Indian wars, funding the new government, and strife in his Cabinet.
If Saddam backs down, the matter will be mostly over - except that regional rivalries will proceed as they have for millenia, and the only democracy in the area, Israel, will continue to be pressured over the rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
If talks with Saddam do not avert confrontation, the debate over whether President Bush should use force will combine with the argument of whether he has the power to do so without the consent of Congress. The question in the American system is whether the executive should be allowed to make the wrong decision. Usually the answer is no. In parliamentary democracies, governments fall on questions of confidence.
In the long run, Bush will be judged on whether his Middle East actions suit US interests - the export of political philosophy as well as the protection of the oil-dependent economic order.
Secretary of State James Baker correctly refused Saddam's offer to meet just three days shy of the mid-January UN resolution deadline. Saddam's offer to release all hostages, ironically, makes it more awkward for Bush to use force.
Should the US mind the Middle East's business? The argument continues. The ``new world order'' is still inchoate. Whatever Bush does - and the vote here is not for war - will be another test of the American system, which is notable at the moment for its assertiveness.