Bosnia and Kosovo, where conflicts were followed by free elections and newly-democratic structures of governance, overseen by U.S. soldiers and international funding at much higher per capita rates than in Iraq. Popular democracies there should have spread calm to troubled neighbors Serbia and Macedonia;
Liberia, which by now should be exporting high-quality democracy to Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire; and the all-time champion, Haiti, where, after U.S.-led interventions under both Presidents Clinton and Bush, waves of Haitian democracy should be lapping at the shores of Cuba by now.
If President Bush is right about the best way to promote democracy in the Middle East, then you’d expect the signal triumphs of democratization in the last 20 years to be clustered around other places where bad governments were replaced through international force.
What has been missing from most post-conflict situations is time and trust. Time for domestic coalitions to organize, shake themselves up, prove they can recover from setbacks, and develop the expertise necessary to govern a country successfully and democratically. Trust among reformers, but also among citizens, that an arrangement as fluid as democracy can successfully protect them from danger–often their fellow-citizens.
Major steps in democracy’s march since the end of the Cold War have come when indigenous activists have had the time, and the trust of citizens, to build up the networks and expertise that make them savvy campaigners and credible alternative rulers.
Democracy comes dropping slowly, after years of determined domestic opposition and international support have worn down or modified authoritarian regimes. Think South Africa, South Korea, Chile, Ghana, Mali, and Benin.
Or democracy seems to come quickly, even opportunistically, after the death of a leader, an external event, or a sham election provides domestic activists the spark they need to engage the masses. Think Central Europe in 1989, but also the 2002 rejection of President Moi’s chosen successor in Kenya, the response to the deaths of Arafat, Abacha, and, more recently, the reformers who arose out of bungled electoral frauds in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.
But behind those dates are months and years of organizing, struggle, failure, and ridicule, as well as continued support from the United States and other public and private friends of democracy.
Every time I see jubilant Ukrainians, I think of a trip I made to that country in 1991 to observe a referendum on Ukrainian independence twinned with a presidential vote. In a rural polling station, cheering villagers served shots of vodka to me and the Canadian parliamentarian I was accompanying. When we raised our concerns about the apparatchik past of the leading candidate, one man assured me, “If we don’t like him, we’ll vote him out!”
Ukrainians have been trying to assert the power of the people over the “party of power” ever since. It took them 13 years, through repression, assassination, dubious elections, and democracy-building aid from the United States that at times seemed quite pointless. American NGOs and the George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations deserve credit for keeping up that assistance when all seemed lost. But the credit for building and effectively using a pro-democracy movement belongs to Ukrainian initiative, not to any American democracy program.
Waves of democratization die out just as fast as they rise up. Yes, Georgia’s revolution 17 months ago inspired democrats in Ukraine. And events in Georgia and Ukraine inspired Zimbabwe’s opposition to protest with new vigor after emerging evidence of fraud in recent elections there. Zimbabwe’s opposition MDF party has paid more than its share of democracy’s dues in intimidation and violence. But the last time I checked, President Mugabe felt well-enough ensconced to attend Pope John Paul’s funeral and get chummy with Britain’s Prince Charles.
So far, the post-Iraq wave of Arab democratization has much to be modest about. You can argue–and President Bush has–that democracy was already on the march in the Middle East. Morocco, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Jordan have all had more open elections in recent years. Non-governmental groups are carrying on fascinating discussions in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The recent “Arab Human Development Report” cites survey evidence that Arabs value democratic governance as much or more than the people of any other region. It documents recent advances, but ultimately concludes that these “do not add up to a serious effort to dispel the prevailing environment of repression.”
Over the last two decades, open and representative governments have sprung up across geography, culture, and circumstance in places many believed they would never flourish. President Bush and his inimitable wordsmith Michael Gerson are right about one very important thing:
“It should be clear to all that Islam–the faith of one-fifth of humanity–is consistent with democratic rule…. Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe–because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”
It’s not that President Bush is the first U.S. leader to discover this; like his predecessors, he tends to forget it when it is inconvenient: when free media like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya present coverage we find repellent; when the money to promote democracy in unpromising places is needed instead for tax cuts and the privatization of Social Security; when the strongmen of Egypt and Saudi Arabia are needed to torture our prisoners; and when democracy spits up leaders we don’t like–and who neither like nor need us.
But if President Bush chooses to remember his insight about Middle East freedom–and truly live by it–he can still be right about how to spread democracy in the Middle East. The people of that region will, at long last, have their say–of that there can be little doubt. We will see popular demands advancing truly popular governments in Jordan and Egypt, Syrian influence rejected by a popular Lebanese government, and Saudis and their neighbors holding real elections. President Bush’s influence on how long it takes for that day to arrive, and how Americans feel about it when it does, is still very much up to him.
Heather Hurlburt, a veteran of the Clinton White House and Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher State Departments, is a Michigan-based writer, consultant, and blogger at democracyarsenal.org.