One of President Bush’s most debatable legacies will be his idea regarding the spread of democracy. The vast majority of people seem to disagree with him. I have had my doubts I will admit. In theory I do agree with him but then when you look at the world as it really is I have doubted that his view can be sustained in a meaningful way. But columnist Charles Krauthammer has a distinctive way of making me rethink my conclusions and today he did it again.
Krauthammer’s syndicated column in my paper this morning is titled: "Difficulty of Spreading Democracy Throughout the World." What an understatement! He admits the great difficulties that are apparent to everyone who knows anything about the modern world. He sets Pakistan forward as exhibit A. With the death of Benazir Bhutto her nineteen year-old son will now represent the Pakistan People’s Party, which really is the Bhutto "we deserve to rule" party. Elections in Pakistan have historically been about the way the Bhutto family regains power. Benazir gained power after her father was hung following a coup. She then was killed recently, as we all know, and now the family presses on stirring up the idea that martyrdom entitles one to lead. In Krauthammer’s words, "The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has always been a wholly owned family subsidiary." Bilawal Bhutto intends to avenge the political murder of a parent not with violence, thankfully, but with the ballot box. But he seemingly has no ability to lead a nation whatsoever, or at least none that shows from any experience at all given his age and education.
But the question persists. Why does democracy in Pakistan face such challenges since General Musharraf is clearly no real friend to the idea either? Krauthammer rightly sees the reason as rooted in a largely "feudal society." Democratic forms are being used (elections) but the the forms are not the reality in most cases. (My comments on Kenya recently apply here as well.) Even Russia touts its elections, and thus real political freedom, but remains a nation led more by a Czarist named Vladimir Putin than by a true believer in real democracy. (Bush’s telling us that he "looked into Putin’s eyes" and saw he was a man committed to freedom is one of his more naive statements.) China is even more stubborn since the Communists still control the government while the economy booms into the modern world. I have argued before that in China’s case the economy, and the freedom it creates, could eventually force the fall of Communism.) And Syria continues to interrupt Lebanon’s attempts to govern itself democratically.
So what should we make of this effort to bring democracy to the world? Is Bush just foolish? Does he deserve the disdain he gets for promoting democracy? I actually think not.
First, what plausible alternative (Krauthhammer poignantly asks) is really better? Bush wants to change the culture from which Jihadism comes. How can you fault that desire? The argument that he is not accomplishing this by virtue of our invading Iraq carries serious weight. But I suggest we cannot know for sure if this argument is true for several more decades. And the evidence that Muslim countries cannot embrace democratic reforms and actually establish cultural environments that are less favorable to Jihadism is mixed.
We did see Germany, Japan and South Korea embrace democratic practice after long wars. But, as Krauthammer correctly notes, this came when we occupied the nation and helped establish the system. We also made these countries our democratic allies. What is unique in these examples is the "rare advantage of uncontested postwar occupation."
So what is the answer in these more difficult places, especially where Islamic culture reigns. I believe Krauthammer is brilliant in his answer. He says, "A healthy respect for the enduring power of local political primitivism and a willingness to adapt to it." I believe this is brilliant precisely because in the end all politics comes down to local governance and to people who know one another. No national or international body can replace the local, even in American democracy. Democracy works best from the bottom up, not the top down. It is here that people are allowed to express themselves and have a share in changing their circumstances directly.
What does this mean in a place like Afghanistan? Krauthammer says, "This means accepting radical decentralization and the power of warlords." And in Iraq it means "letting centralized top-down governance give way, at least temporarily, to provincial and tribal autonomy." In Pakistan it means accepting feudal politics and the military role.
What he is arguing for is a democracy that is always a work in progress. You have cannot have Jeffersonian ideals without a Jefferson. Musharraf is no Jefferson. Nor will we find one in Iraq any time soon. But we had best work with what we have and continue to pursue the ideal unless we want something much worse, namely chaos unleashed in the world that promotes the spread of Islamic Jihadism.
Krauthammer concludes that: "These are hard days for democracy. That is not a reason to give up on it." I could not agree more. The simple fact is people do crave the freedom to express their concerns and to have a say in what happens to them in their local settings. I believe this freedom is God-given. I do not think American democracy is right for every people or country but I do believe all people innately desire to be free and to have a part in their own destiny from day-to-day. This concept is worth promoting in a very tense time when the world is poised to go one way or the other in regard to how Jihadism is able to disrupt the peace and stability of nations or not.
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