Democracy Hypocrisy?

Are critics of the Bush Administration hypocrites for criticizing the President's failure to stand firmly on the side of democracy in Pakistan after many of those same critics earlier criticized the President's naivete in thinking that bringing democracy to the Middle East would advance the strategic interests of the United States in the region? So say some Administration defenders but they're mostly wrong.

The leading examples of the administration's problematic efforts to support democracy in the Middle East are Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Let's consider them in turn. Iraq, which is by far the largest effort, is problematic for two chief reasons. First, the invasion of Iraq was not justified to the American public as an effort to bring democracy but as pre-emptive self-defense. Democracy was one of the post-hoc rationalizations offered after Iraq proved to have no WMDs, and even then, there are reasons to doubt that it was ever a real justification. Second, there is a huge difference between saying---as critics of the Administration's coddling of Musharraf say---that the U.S. government should temper its support for an authoritarian ruler who does everything in his power to suppress democracy, and saying that democracy cannot be imposed through the use of military force.

To be sure, as to the second point, the critics are wrong if this is meant as a universal truth. The successful use of military force and military occupation pretty much did lead to democracy in post-WWII Japan and Germany, but this brings us to a different point. Democracy is not simply the holding of elections. The principal criticism of the Bush pro-democracy efforts in the Middle East is that it equated elections with democracy. Thus, it is hardly surprising that in places with few robust civil society institutions other than religious ones, elections would lead to victories by parties that are not, broadly speaking, democratic. The administration's approach to the elections in Lebanon and Palestine might have had some greater chance of success if there had been greater support for the other institutions of democracy (and if the secular alternatives were not widely perceived as corrupt and weak).

The contrast with Pakistan is stark. Pakistan has an educated professional class that supports liberal democracy (which is not to say that they are especially sympathetic to U.S. foreign policy, but that's another matter). Support for democracy in Pakistan would not have meant demanding elections in a country without the civil society institutions to go along with it. Support for democracy would have meant conditioning the billions in aid to Musharraf's regime on such basic principles as respect for the independence of the judiciary and the press.

In fairness to the Bush administration, it's not clear how much leverage we ever would have had with Musharraf, but the critics have a point that we don't know the answer because the Bush administration didn't even make an effort.

On the broader question of whether to support democracy in other parts of the world, I do want to register a tiny bit of support for the administration's intentions. The best that can be said for their policies, I think, is that they misapplied a laudable principle. In the 1990s, then-PM of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew famously argued that Western-style democracy was inconsistent with "Asian values," which supposedly favored a more authoritarian style of governance. Western liberals and many Asian liberals rightly rejected this claim as just so much rationalization.

I suspect that some of the idea people in the Bush administration thought that resistance to rapid democratization of the Middle East was simply an echo of the Asian values ruse. They thought that Islamic and Arab culture could coexist with democracy, and that a contrary position is patronizing. (You can see hear a cousin of Bush's approach to education and the denunciation of the "soft bigotry of low expectations.")

The problem is that a culture that is theoretically hospitable to democracy won't become actually hospitable to it simply by holding elections. Just as the administration thought that simply toppling Saddam would lead to a new stable liberal democratic state in Iraq, without paying any attention to the complex task of rebuilding, so more broadly the administration naively thought that elections were a magic bullet. They're not.

Posted by Mike Dorf