Democracy Revisited

In all my years as a student of the theory, conventions and practice of foreign relations, and as a journalist, I have yet to encounter a foreign policy as confused and contradictory as that of the Bush administration. It is as if the world’s foremost superpower, which one might expect to engage in farsighted strategic planning, has succumbed to a state of constructive chaos, forcing it to continually extemporise and backtrack.

Only a few days ago the US cautioned Israel against taking any steps that might affect final status negotiations over borders. The caution came in response to the announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he intends to establish final borders for Israel by 2010. Moreover, let it be understood that Olmert’s resolve in this regard is so strong that he will, if needs be, establish borders unilaterally, regardless of the opinion of the Palestinians who are, presumably, party to the peace process supported by the US, the EU and the international community in general, a process supposedly governed by the roadmap.

Washington’s caution against any unilateral setting of borders was welcomed by the PA. PA President Mahmoud Abbas used the occasion to warn that any such action could only obstruct the resumption of negotiations and defer any end to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. His position was backed up by a resolution adopted last week by the Arab Summit in Khartoum.

Shortly afterwards Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, commenting on the Kadima Party’s success in last week’s Israeli elections, remarked that Washington “may be open to backing the Kadima Party in drawing Israel’s borders unilaterally”. This flagrant U-turn occurred only days after Washington’s declaration of its opposition to such a move.

It is far from being the only instance of a reversal in US foreign policy. Washington’s attitude towards the victory of Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections is, if anything, stranger. International monitors, including former US president Jimmy Carter, praised the integrity and transparency of the poll. Yet as soon as the results were announced the Bush administration proclaimed its intention to boycott any government headed by Hamas. This comes, one must remember, from the same administration that has railed against dictatorships and pledged to spread democracy.

Such contradictions reflect the dominance of neo- conservatives within the Republican Party, certainly over those neo-realists who regard Bush’s aggressive campaign to spread democracy as detrimental to American interests. The neo- realists, who include among their number Henry Kissinger and Brent Scocroft, maintain that Bush’s rampage through Afghanistan and Iraq have cost the US huge political and material losses. White House policies, they say, are ultimately responsible for the electoral victories of Islamist political forces in Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. They further believe that the pressures Washington has brought to bear, within the framework of its push for democratisation, on such countries as Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia have hampered these countries’ ability to cooperate effectively with Washington on such crucial issues as the fight against terrorism and the prevention of the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

From the moment he took the helm of the strongest and wealthiest nation on earth Bush promised that the fight to bring democracy to the oppressed peoples of the world — and to the Middle East in particular — would top his government’s agenda. Democracy, ran the argument, is the most powerful weapon against terrorism. Bush has said repeatedly that one of the major causes of the spread of extremism and terrorism in the Middle East and Asia is that the peoples of these regions continue to be deprived of fundamental human and civil rights, one of the most important of which is the right to choose their own leaders. It is this that has driven the young to despair, and from despair to acts of violence against innocent people at home and abroad. The US president pledged that the two-pronged war he was leading against terrorism and tyranny would bring peace and stability.

Washington tried to neutralise the Palestinian people who voted for a Hamas-led government. It would continue to furnish economic aid to the Palestinian people, but not to the Hamas government. How, one wonders, will the US put such a distinction into effect on the ground? How can it distribute aid to Palestinians and by-pass the relevant agencies of their elected government?

If the US has yet to come up with an answer to this question, the same cannot be said for Canada, which has suspended all aid — LE22 million worth — to the PA. Ottawa justified its action on the grounds that the Hamas government has not offered assurances that it will recognise Israel’s right to exist, becoming the first donor nation to reward the Palestinians for holding free and fair elections by cutting off all aid.

Neo-conservative ideologues have always claimed that elections are better than violence, regardless of the results. There is, however, a get out clause: if the ballot box brings in people the neo-conservatives don’t like, then democracy can go to hell.

Francis Fukayama, doyen of the American ultra-conservative right, has helped clear up the mystery behind this contradictory stance. The Bush administration, he reminds us, only came up with the idea of spreading democracy when it became clear that there were no WMD to be unearthed in Iraq. In other words, Bush needed a retroactive pretext for invading Iraq to counter growing accusations that the invasion was an act of unjustified aggression against a sovereign state. Fukayama points out that Bush and Rice criticised Clinton for attempting to bring democracy to Somalia, Haiti and the Balkans. Clinton was being an idealistic romantic, they said. The countries in question were not ready for Western-style democracy and to ignore this fact would bring nothing but trouble.

Obviously something made Bush and Rice change their minds. That’s what is so exasperating when trying to figure this administration out. It is headed by an ultra-conservative Republican who has adopted precisely those policies for which he criticised his Democratic predecessor. At the same time, he appears ever ready to contradict his own policies when they fail to accomplish his objectives. Today it is the Palestinians who are at the nasty end of this administration’s unpredictable reversals. Who will it be tomorrow?