The Case for Democracy
Tuesday, March 7,2006 00:00
By The Washington Post

THE "DEMOCRACY backlash" is in full swing, largely because of the carnage in Iraq and the electoral success of the terrorist organization Hamas in the Palestinian Authority. In the past week our op-ed writers from right to left have expressed doubts about, or opposition to, the Bush administration’s project of encouraging democracy in the Middle East. From their and others’ arguments, three principles tend to emerge: You can’t impose democracy by force. You shouldn’t push for elections, or expect a democracy to develop, until a mature "civil society" is in place. We are better off with dictators like Mubarak, Musharraf and the rest than with the alternative, which is anarchy, terrorism and religious fundamentalism.

These are serious arguments, and those of us who supported the war in Iraq in particular have a responsibility to consider them seriously. It would be comfortable for us to blame the Bush administration for everything that’s gone wrong there: After all, it failed to anticipate a Baathist underground resistance, failed to prepare for postwar nation-building, failed to commit enough troops. All true. But even war planners far more diligent and serious than this administration’s will get things wrong -- an assumption that should be built into any prewar calculation. And even if President Bush had gotten a lot more right than he did, Iraq still might not be at peace today.

There are and will be many lessons to be drawn from that, but "democracy cannot be imposed by force" is not one of them. For one thing, democracies do sometimes emerge from wars (Japan and Germany). More to the point, the United States never has gone to war, and is unlikely ever to go to war, with the dominant purpose of imposing democracy. We did not fight imperial Japan because we were offended by its system of internal governance. We hoped eventually to bring democracy to Korea and Vietnam, but we fought because we saw communism as a threat. We believed that unyoking the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein would be a great benefit to them, but Congress authorized (and this editorial page supported) war in Iraq not primarily for that reason but because we believed that Saddam Hussein represented a threat to U.S. national security interests -- in the weapons he was thought to possess and to crave, his flouting of international norms, his totalitarian example and his ambition to dominate the Middle East.

The second notion -- that it is foolish to press for democracy in unready societies -- also is less useful than it appears at first blush. Of course elections don’t make for a democracy; the Soviet Union conducted them for years. And it’s true that many of the countries that have developed democratically in the past two decades began with advantages that not everyone shares, such as (in parts of Central and Eastern Europe) memories of a democratic past between the world wars. But other nations progress without that head start. Everyone would acknowledge that it’s difficult; that culture, history and ethnic politics matter; that totalitarian habits take decades to recover from. But it’s hard to look around the world -- to democracies in South Korea, India, South Africa, El Salvador and Indonesia -- and come up with rules to predict where democracy can succeed and where it can’t.

The unreadiness argument is often applied to countries where the election results, as in the Palestinian Authority, are not welcome in the West. The fallacy of this thinking is that it supposes that without elections Hamas and other fundamentalist movements could be suppressed or excluded from the political system. But radical Islamists and others hostile to Western interests cannot be wished away: They are powerful forces in the Middle East that, until their recent participation in elections, pursued their goals by terrorism. Democratic participation has caused Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and at least some of Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite groups to scale back violence at least temporarily. Over time, it is more likely than exclusion and suppression to moderate their political aims.

Amore fundamental problem with the readiness argument is that it imagines a choice that policymakers rarely enjoy. Yes, we might welcome the benign dictator who would nurture the "rule of law" until his nation was "ready" for democracy -- and then would give way gracefully to his matured people. But for the same reason that we wish for civil society as a precursor, most dictators do everything they can to squelch it. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak gives space to the Muslim Brotherhood while persecuting his secular liberal opposition, because he wants to be the only acceptable alternative; he doesn’t want a civil society. In much of the autocratic world -- Central Asia, Russia, Burma -- the picture is the same.

So it’s fair to oppose democracy promotion, but only if you’re honest about the alternative. Throughout much of the Muslim world, that alternative is not a gentle flowering of civil society but the conditions that after Sept. 11 were recognized as threatening: closed and stagnant economies that leave millions of young people unemployed; brutal secret police services that permeate society and stifle education and free thinking; corrupt rulers who nurture religious extremism to shield themselves at home and make trouble abroad.

Those who promote democracy as the best alternative do not imagine that it will succeed quickly, or in all places. It’s important to press autocratic allies such as Mr. Mubarak to create more space for political parties, so that when elections do take place Egyptians can take advantage of them responsibly. Of course elections aren’t enough; of course civil society and prosperity and the emergence of a middle class matter, too; and which comes first, and in what ways, will be different in every country.

But without elections, or the prospect of elections -- without some measure of accountability to the people -- what will induce a dictator to allow civil society to grow? The "realists" need to answer that question, too.