Will promoting democracy backfire?

FROM GAZA TO LEBANON to Iraq, the Middle East is aflame, and the vaunted free elections that have been held in each country have hardly produced peace, stability or good governance. Some Arabs are now claiming that democracy itself is discredited. That’s neither fair nor true.

Democracy is the only path to a government for and by the people. And without the competition of free elections, politicians have no real incentive to enact reform, and citizens have no meaningful way to hold them accountable. But it is simplistic to equate elections with democracy. Nor should Americans expect elections to produce outcomes we approve.

Early this decade, Washington was fiercely opposed to Palestinian elections that would surely have legitimized the late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s leadership against his weak rival, Hamas. After Arafat’s death, Hamas won elections that were unquestionably free and fair, and this week, Gaza has descended into a fierce civil war. The U.S. applauded the Iraqi and Lebanese elections. Yet sectarian strife, malevolent neighbors and crippling historical legacies have conspired to nullify the resulting democratic gains.

It is often said that were free elections to be held tomorrow, Islamists would sweep into power across the Middle East. That’s because Islamists are seen as an antidote to corruption and despotism, and they are organized. So governments such as Egypt’s have virtually crushed secular democratic opposition, while the Islamists continue to spread their messages in mosques and underground. Cairo banned Muslim Brotherhood candidates from parliamentary elections last week, beating up poll watchers and turning away voters in heavily Islamist neighborhoods. Such repression is intolerable, of course. Still, the central challenge to the Bush administration’s democracy promotion strategy is the inconvenient but pressing question: What does the U.S. do when elections produce leaders who despise the United States, or whom the United States despises?

First, we must practice patience, which has not been a traditional American virtue. It is worth remembering that in U.S. foreign policy, as in medicine, bad outcomes are sometimes inevitable. Elections should not have been expected to cure the poisoning of the Palestinian body politic after 40 years of war, occupation and strife. Elections could not prevent Syria from assassinating Lebanese politicians. And medievalist Al Qaeda has no respect for the ballot. That does not mean balloting should not take place.

Second, the U.S. should reiterate that merely getting elected does not make a government legitimate. Civilized nations also judge each other on the basis of their adherence to the rule of law, political pluralism, minority rights, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech and press and respect for international borders. U.S. support for democratic ideals does not obligate it to recognize a freely elected government of Nazis, genocidal thugs or terrorists.

The Bush administration would be wise to recalibrate its rhetoric and promote more realistic expectations. But it should not retreat from our democratic principles.