Is the US ready for democracy?

Today's debate over bringing democracy to the Muslim Middle East often centers on whether the region is "ready for democracy."

Another question is equally valid: "Is the United States ready to tolerate democracy?"

Systems based on guaranteed freedoms, the rule of law, and peaceful electoral transitions are obviously desirable for all. But democratic systems are often unpredictable.

In a recent discussion of democracy with Egyptian journalists, the US ambassador to Cairo, David Welch, was asked: "If we eventually end up with democracy and the regimes to be elected are not compliant with US interests, what would the US do?"

He answered: "But we've had this situation all over the world. There are democratic and elected governments who disagree with us on anything from genetically modified food to Guantánamo. We don't do anything about that except discuss it with them."

The ambassador may be right that the US tolerates dissenting voices from abroad - particularly on issues, such as the detainees classified as enemy combatants at the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in which there are open differences within the US. But the dilemma in the Middle East could be different.

Democratic regimes in the region would face populations feeling humiliated by the West and vulnerable to politicians who would seek to exploit the deep-seated resentments relating to Israel; ethnic and religious divisions; and the intrusion of foreign, particularly Western influence. In a period when the US emphasizes the war on terrorism, new governments may have different definitions of terrorism and terrorists. Strong Islamist movements, long suppressed by governments in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world could emerge. Policies of the new governments could directly challenge the presence of US forces, efforts to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, US policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and significant American human rights initiatives.

In their plans for a transition in Iraq, coalition authorities are making every effort to ensure that such a government will not emerge. The US commitment to democracy would quickly lose credibility if transition efforts are accompanied by conspicuous machinations to produce friendly regimes. Iraq had that experience with the British influence on the monarchy before the 1958 revolution.

Another US approach might say, "We will work with whatever government a genuine democratic election might produce." But recent experience suggests that, whatever the administration in power in Washington may be, Congress, American political circles, and much of the public will not tolerate policies in others that appear to threaten basic US interests.

Democratic France's rebuff of the US preemptive action against Iraq was met with infantile responses: French fries became freedom fries. Angry words were directed at the Germans for their opposition. Americans felt particularly offended when a traditional ally, Turkey, would not let US troops cross its territory to attack Iraq. In each case, democratic processes were at work.

In the two countries today where US interests are directly tied to the development of democracy - Iraq and Afghanistan - new governments haven't yet been formed. The question of postoccupation foreign policies hasn't arisen. When it does, issues of the treatment of US forces, the role of Islam, and attitudes toward Israel may arise. Each will be followed closely in Washington. If new policies are unacceptable, strong demands will be made, either for a forceful removal of the offending government or for sanctions. It may not be enough for proponents of diplomacy to point to the risks of setting aside an elected government or to urge dialogue with the new authorities, arguing that the experience of power often modifies the most radical of governments. The US commitment to the results of democracy will be sorely tested.

In his much acclaimed Nov. 6 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, President Bush spoke of the march to democracy that followed President Reagan's June 1982 speech to the British Parliament and he emphasized the benefits to all of internal democratic reforms. He didn't address what foreign policies the new democratic governments in the Middle East might adopt. This is a critical omission, for the ultimate credibility of the president's Middle East democracy initiative will depend on the degree to which US administrations, Congress, and the public can tolerate or peacefully change policy directions that appear to challenge key US interests.

David Newsom is a former US ambassador to Libya, Indonesia, and the Philippines. His most recent book is 'The Imperial Mantle: The United States, Decolonization, and the Third World.'

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