Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Democracy Dilemma



March 21, 2005

Is democracy on the march around the world? If so, is recent American foreign policy the reason for its progress?

The Bush administration wants to believe so and is taking every opportunity to make that case, especially since weapons of mass destruction were not found in Iraq and no operational ties were discovered between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Not only has establishing democracy become the primary justification for the Iraq war, but the triumph of democracy has become the centerpiece of the administration's reconstructed foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East.

Certainly, changes are taking place in that region and elsewhere, and we should applaud every development that helps to bring about greater justice in government and society. Yet most of the changes attracting attention have their sources not in outside pressure but in regional developments that have been brewing for a long time. Moreover, the changes taking place in the Middle East are immensely complex and it is impossible at this point to know where they will lead. Thus, it is premature to celebrate the march of democratic progress in the region—a lesson we should have learned from the recent retreat from the democratic experiment begun in Russia in the early 1990s. In fact, democratic forces in the Middle East could suffer a fatal blow if there is even a hint that Washington is pulling the strings.

As we watch American policy and events unfold in the Middle East we need to keep three basic points in mind.

First, how do we define democracy? Is it enough to hold an election, or do we need to see the establishment of solid institutions of government and civil society before declaring victory? Does democracy require one person one vote—a concept that is not fully understood in Islamic societies? Is it necessary to have independent political parties? If so, how many are necessary to constitute a legitimate democracy? Is it acceptable if the division of power and authority among different ethnic groups is prearranged outside the electoral process (as is done in Lebanon)? What happens if candidates and parties are elected that strongly oppose American policies and values? Will we attempt to unseat those anti-American forces as we did in the Balkans during the 1990s? In short, how do we know when "acceptable" democracies have emerged?

Second, context matters. Each case in the Middle East is different and most of them call into question the proposition that democracy is on the march. For example, although Iraq's January elections went relatively well, that country will continue to be wracked by a vicious insurgency that will undermine effective democratic rule for a long time to come. In Egypt, the Mubarak government has opened the upcoming elections to other parties for the first time. But Mubarak's chief opponent is out of jail and on bail, and only those parties authorized by the government will be allowed to participate. In Saudi Arabia, half of the recent local council seats were determined by election—but only men could vote. Despite propaganda to the contrary, Beirut's popular demonstrations last week were not about establishing a democratic system; they were held in opposition to Syria's military presence.

Third, because democracy is the Bush administration's new foreign policy centerpiece, the administration has a motive to trumpet democratic success in the Middle East even if there is relatively little to cheer about. In other words, if democracies are needed in the Middle East to lend credibility to our foreign policy, then democracies will be found.

Early last week, President Bush proclaimed that the "autocratic regimes in the Middle East are the last gasp of a discredited past." If so, that gasp is likely to be very long and very painful.

—Steven E. Meyer, Professor of Political Science
    National Defense University

    (The views expressed here are the author's alone)

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”