DEMOCRACY PROMOTION….Which comes first, democracy or economic development? Max Boot writes today that the answer is democracy:

In fact, many poor countries have freely elected governments (think India, Poland and Brazil) while some rich ones (think Saudi Arabia and Singapore) do not. Far from economic development being necessary for democracy, they argue that democracy promotes economic development. Free countries grow faster than their more repressive neighbors. They also perform better on social measures such as life expectancy, literacy rates, clean drinking water and healthcare. And they are less prone to armed conflict.

“They” are Joseph Siegle, Michael Weinstein, and Morton Halperin, whose new book, The Democracy Advantage, is previewed in Foreign Affairs here. It strikes me that their argument (or Boot’s summary of it, anyway) overreaches a bit, since Singapore is a well known oddity and Saudi Arabia is hardly rich despite its oil wealth, but it’s a reasonable one nonetheless, based largely on the idea ? correct, I think ? that democracies are fundamentally more stable than autocracies and therefore provide a better environment for economic growth.

Similarly, based on a 2003 study by Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova, Boot reports that terrorism is rooted not in poverty or lack of education, but in lack of basic freedoms. I suspect his argument overreaches here too, but even dialed back a notch it still makes sense.

So: take Boot’s column with a grain of salt, but read it anyway to get a pretty good summary of the neocon case for democracy promotion as a primary imperative of U.S. foreign policy. My only real beef is with his final sentence: “President Bush is on the right track because he recognizes the democracy imperative that too many of his critics unfairly dismiss as neocon nuttiness.”

Just exactly what is Bush doing that makes Boot think he really cares about democracy promotion? Iraq is the only serious demonstration of Bush’s democracy promotion bona fides, and I think you’d have to be naive in the extreme to think that it actually had much to do with his decision to invade. It’s hard to think of any other significant action Bush has taken to promote democracy and easy to think of plenty where he hasn’t. The neocons really need to find themselves a new hero.