Making the world safe for democracy carries dangers of overreaching

TODAY the world faces a struggle as old as history, to hear the Clinton administration tell it. On one side are the forces of light: tolerance, democracy, freedom and prosperity. On the other are darkness, repression, extremism, and tyranny. In other words, the Bosnian Serbs, not to mention nuclear proliferation and the thuggish side of Haiti's military leaders.

This is the vision stressed repeatedly by the president himself in his Sept. 26 address to the United Nations General Assembly, as well as by lesser administration lights. Whereas the foreign policy of the United States and the West used to be all about the free world vs. communism, now it is the free world vs. crooks, dictators, tribalists, and coup plotters, all of whom constitute an inhumane ``other.''

``The 20th century proved that the forces of freedom and democracy can endure against great odds,'' President Clinton said at the UN. ``Our job is to see that in the 21st century these forces triumph.''

As a ``vision thing,'' in former President Bush's old phrase, this theme has much going for it.

Containing communism was a crusade both huge and simple, something every voter could understand. It helped presidents of both parties rally support for containment. Promotion of freedom and democracy is a vision of similarly grand scale. Moreover, the benefits seem obvious. Free democracy is the foundation of the West's liberal culture. If its virtues are good enough for the West, should they not be extended elsewhere? With such logic, US presidents and others have pressed the superiority of democracy. This was implicitly what the cold war was all about.

This very idealism, however, is what troubles critics of the Clinton team's newly enunciated foreign-policy theme. Wasn't the cold war also about hard-edged US political and economic interests? ``Promote democracy!'' is a rallying cry of a vaguer sort. If pursued assiduously it could lead to commitments in every corner of the globe; or, it could quickly seem like so much hot air.

``I believe democracy is not an export commodity, but essentially a self-help project,'' says Owen Harries, editor of The National Interest journal. Not only is it difficult to inject democracy into nations from outside, it is also difficult to maintain US interest in such foreign-policy actions, notes Mr. Harries. Essentially, the US has cut and run from Somalia, for example.

Nowadays, a sense of limits would serve the US better than a grand foreign-policy vision, says Harries. Ironically, that is precisely what he believes the Clinton team has actually brought to the US role in the world. Mr. Clinton did say at the UN: ``There are good reasons for the caution that people feel. Often the chances of success, or the costs, are unclear.... The problem is deciding when we must respond, and how we shall overcome our reluctance. This will never be easy - there are no simple formulas.''

True, thousands of US troops in Haiti are now embarked on an experiment of democracy creation. But the White House has resisted deeper involvement in Bosnia, so far, and avoided heavy-handed mauling of negotiations with North Korea.

``Beyond the pratfalls, the ham acting, and the lousy production, some sensible decisions have been made,'' concludes Harries.

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