Bush idealism at odds with realities of democracy

In recent foreign-policy speeches, President Bush has switched his emphasis from the particular problems of Iraq and Afghanistan to the broader problem of promoting democracy and freedom worldwide. He seems to think that the growth of democracy is inevitable. It's not.

Take countries holding free elections. Mr. Bush noted an increase from 40 to 120 between 1970 and the end of the century. An impressive gain. But it takes more than elections to make, and more important to sustain, a democratic government. It takes an electoral system that will produce reasonably fair representation for each of the country's important interest groups. It takes an independent judiciary that deserves and receives popular support for unpopular decisions.

One of the unsolved problems in Colombia, for example, is that judges fear for their lives if they try to crack down on drug lords. Of all the countries in Latin America, Colombia used to come as close to democracy as any. No more.

The president took issue with those who argue that some countries aren't "ready" for democracy. Being ready, he said, comes with practice. But if you start from scratch, you need a lot of practice. Tony Blair's government didn't spring full blown from the fields of Runnymede the day Magna Carta was signed.

Bush alluded to, but didn't suggest a solution for, the dilemma of supporting dictators in exchange for their support of US policies in the UN or elsewhere. This is more likely to inhibit democracy than to promote it.

During the cold war, many unsavory governments received US aid in exchange for their anti-Soviet policies. During the current Bush campaign for democracy several nondemocratic governments, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, are receiving US political support in exchange for support of antiterrorist policies.

Another such dilemma involves human rights. The US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council recently banned an Arab TV network from broadcasting in Iraq because it played a purported audiotape of Saddam Hussein. US Administrator Paul Bremer approved the action despite its clear violation of press freedom. A free press is as essential to democracy as free elections.

The TV censorship is especially ironic, occurring the week after Bush was in London calling demonstrations against him "free speech exercised with enthusiasm." He noted that "they now have that right in Baghdad as well."

But, alas, it wasn't to last. At Whitehall Palace, Bush said that the idealism that President Wilson brought to Europe after World War I failed to prevent World War II because the League of Nations lacked both "credibility and will." The main thing it lacked was US membership. Bush's clear inference was that his leadership gave the UN what the League lacked.

It was Wilson's refusal to compromise with the Senate that kept the US out of the league. It was Bush's refusal to compromise with allies in the UN Security Council that left him alone with Britain in Iraq. Bush and Wilson also share a messianic view of the world centered on the spread of democracy: for Bush, in the Middle East and beyond; for Wilson, in Mexico.

Wilson's test came with Victoriano Huerto who came to power by violence in the Mexican Revolution. This offended Wilson's devotion to the Virginia Bill of Rights, and he saw his efforts to unseat Huerto as giving "the Mexicans a chance to try." Wilson's ambassador to London, Walter Hines Page, was asked by British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, "Suppose you have to intervene, what then?"

"Make 'em vote and live by their decisions."

"But suppose they will not so live?"

"We'll go in again...."

"And keep this up 200 years?"

"Yes.... The United States will be here in 200 years and it can continue to shoot men for that little space till they learn to vote and to rule themselves."

The US fortunately didn't have to spend 200 years repeating its interventions. The Huerto confrontation is forgotten by most Americans, but that and similar incidents during the revolution live in Mexican memory and make "no intervencion" a national mantra. We will be twice as fortunate if nothing worse happens in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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