In March 2005, President Bush exhorted all free nations to "stand with the forces of democracy and justice that have begun to transform the Middle East." Having committed itself to an increasingly difficult war in Iraq, the administration searched for those forces in Baghdad – and missed them by nearly 4,000 miles.
These forces were at work in the North African country of Mauritania. Some six months after the Bush speech, a group of officers overthrew Mauritania's long-reigning despot, President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, and launched an ambitious 19-month plan for democracy that began with a constitutional referendum and ended with a presidential election. Because the 2005 coup was condemned by both Western and African governments, the task of shepherding Mauritania's transition fell to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
This was how I found myself in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott. Working for an NGO (for safety reasons, I can't name it) that specializes in global democracy promotion, I helped manage an international mission to monitor the presidential elections. On March 24 and 25, 2007, Mauritania held its first truly free and fair democratic elections, and on April 19, 2007, swore in its first democratically elected president, President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi. Here was an example of the transformation that the US said it was championing. Because of its preoccupation with the war in Iraq, however, the Bush administration did virtually nothing either to encourage or to nurture the new Mauritanian government.
And two weeks ago, after just 15 months, the first democratically elected government of Mauritania ended the way it began: in a coup d'état.
It would be easy to dismiss Mauritania's story as just another sad example of how democracy can't take root in an impoverished country, or an Islamic country. Mauritania is desperately poor. Bigger than Texas, with a population smaller than that of Los Angeles, it has virtually no infrastructure; some Mauritanians still remember when the country's first highway was paved.
But that mischaracterizes the problem. Yes, it is an impoverished Islamic country. But it also protects freedom of religion, legally mandates universal suffrage, enjoys the second-highest level of female representation in government in the Middle East and North Africa, is one of a handful of Islamic countries to recognize Israel diplomatically, and has abolished slavery. Unlike in most countries in the region, foreigners in Mauritania can go to church or synagogue and walk freely in the streets in Western clothes without being harassed or threatened.
Rather than proving that democracy can't flourish in the region, this month's coup should instead be viewed as a lesson that countries such as Mauritania cannot be expected to sustain their transformations unaided, no matter what building blocks they might already possess.
One of the greatest tragedies of the Bush administration's Iraq-centric foreign policy is that "democracy" has become a boo-word in the very countries that its policy theoretically seeks to transform. This disconnect between policy and practice has had two consequences.
The first, and far more dangerous, consequence is that it has devalued the idea of democracy for those countries the US might wish to see democratize. As an old man asked me in Boghe, a small town on the Senegal River in Mauritania, "What do I care if my country is democratic or not? What does democracy do for me?" These questions haunt the Middle East.
The second consequence is that, in the absence of widespread formal support from key donors such as the US, NGOs attempting to help countries transition to democracy have a much more difficult time. With little recognition or assistance from the US, countries such as Mauritania grow to be suspicious of the value of democracy. As a result, civil society contracts, the rule of law erodes, and dictators hold sham elections.
The next administration in Washington must resurrect democracy promotion while remaining alert to – and supportive of – successes in countries that are not often the center of global attention. The next administration must also be patient. Institutions are slow to become bulwarks against corruption and abuse. But with guidance, they can safely evolve.
Democracy is important. Countries are better off under the rule of law and not the law of the ruler. And the US is better off when more countries in the world can resist tyranny – and that will happen only if we help them. We have seen in Mauritania what happens when we do not.
• Caroline Baxter is a graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. She worked for three years at an international NGO that specializes in global democracy promotion.