The Hard Road to Democracy

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

Fostering elections in Iraq is a hard road, well apart from the daily violence of the Sunni Triangle. The autocratic Sunni elite of surrounding countries prefers democracy to fail, warning us that an Iranian-sponsored theocracy will surely follow in Iraq, legitimizing a new Arab Khomeinism.

Sunni Iraqis want exemption from, or a delay of, the election—even though they cannot or will not stop their own violence that imperils it. The United States earns very little credit abroad for its newfound dedication to democratic reform—even as realists at home warn that we should instead back the status-quo who better guarantee order that purportedly favors our own national security.

There are rarely supporters of the hard road of promoting democracies abroad until they are well established. We learned that well enough both before and after the Afghanistan war. Many swore that the Taliban could not be removed. After their demise, new critics warned that the fascists could not be replaced with democrats—and now suddenly they are mostly silent or indeed supportive of the new Afghanistan.

In the face of censure, the United States once bombed Christian Europeans in the Balkans to arrest an Islamic genocide, in hopes of stopping Milosevic and ushering in a democracy. Greeks and Russians were furious. The Arab world offered little thanks that we saved their fellow Muslims. Europeans who had watched the carnage on their doorstep for a near decade whined about our heavy-handed bombing. But perseverance in pursuit of principle—perhaps the Clinton administration’s most controversial hour—saved thousands of lives and gave the Balkans a chance at consensual government.

America’s calls for fair elections in the Ukraine only alienated a far more powerful Russia. The Putin administration remonstrated that Russia is the world’s largest oil producer and a similar victim of mass terrorism and thus an ally in our war. Yet the Ukraine now has a fairly elected leader, and we proved that America is not anti- Russian, but rather pro-democratic.

We are at last pressing Saudi Arabia for internal reform in the knowledge that their monarchy is a fertile ground for religious fascists who manipulate understandable popular discontent against the monarchy for their own Islamic agendas. These efforts at promoting Western-style democracy are either slurred as cultural chauvinism against Arabs or dismissed as criminally naive idealism that will ensure a far worse anti-American theocracy—supposedly a lose-lose proposition.

Yet a day will come when it is recognized that the American withdrawal of 10,000 troops from the Wahhabi state was a wise move—and should be followed by sober reassessment of American subsidies to the Mubarak dynasty in Egypt that is heading toward to a crisis of succession.

America was castigated for isolating Yasser Arafat. However, this ostracism ensured at Arafat’s passing that he was not a messianic figure, but generally felt to have been an obstacle to open elections that are moving ahead. So the United States was attacked for shunning a dictatorial nationalist, but never thanked for opposing the corruption and authoritarianism that had ruined the Palestinian state.

In all these cases, the preference for the status quo offers short-term stability, while the principled insistence on consensual government proves risky and hinges on unproven reformers. Yet in the long-term, America has rarely gone wrong for being on the democratic side of history. Japanese today are not angry with us because decades ago we insisted that women vote there. Nor are Germans furious that we opposed Soviet expansion through an elected rather than a puppet Bonn government.

The war-torn Europeans understandably bristle at the option of using force for democratic change, but if Nicaraguans, Panamanians, Bosnians, Kosovars, Afghans and Iraqis had counted only on the EU’s much vaunted utopian soft power, then they would be still under dictators. If in World War II Americans had acted as the present-day European Union does now, there would probably be no European Union today.

Most Americans rightly lament past Cold War support for strongmen—with little acknowledgement that thousands of Soviet missiles pointing at the United States once narrowed the parameters of principled action. Moreover, if it was mistaken once to support autocrats, then it is surely right now to rectify, rather than abdicate from, that wrong.

The world after September 11 has reminded us of three other lessons as well. Democracies rarely attack each other and thus the greater the number of them, the less likely is war itself. Citizens vent better through ballots than bullets. And freedom is innate to all born into this world rather than the sole domain of the West.

If the past is any guide to the future, that hard road to democracy in the Middle East will create as much immediate chaos and caricature of President Bush’s new idealism as it does enduring stability and eventual praise—but only long after he is gone.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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