America exports flawed democracy

April 13, 2003|By Jesse L. Jackson Jr.

EXPORTING DEMOCRACY is as American as apple pie.

President Bush feels divinely "called" to convert other countries' governments from oppressive regimes to democratically free governments. He is freeing Iraq through "gunboat diplomacy," then proposes to govern it with gunpoint democracy. But what kind of democracy is Mr. Bush proposing to export?

After World War II, America maintained and increased its military strength, fearing communism. President Ronald Reagan epitomized this fear. He called the Soviet Union "an evil empire ... behind all the trouble spots in the world," including those in Africa, South and Central America and the Caribbean.

This Reagan policy - a vastly expanded version of Theodore Roosevelt's gunboat diplomacy - was committed to intervention against any government Mr. Reagan disapproved of. Inevitably, the policy led to contempt for international law.

For example, Mr. Reagan withdrew the United States from the World Court after we unilaterally mined the harbors of Nicaragua, spurning world opinion and our allies' objections. The Reagan administration was shrouded in secrecy and deception to minimize resistance from the American people or constraints from Congress.

Mr. Bush's government and foreign policy are modeled after Mr. Reagan's.

After we win the war in Iraq, Mr. Bush will argue that the Iraqi people have been liberated and democracy is on its way to Iraq. But what kind of democracy? Who will enjoy the greatest freedom? The Iraqi people? Or Mr. Bush's "friends" from the private sector?

The word democracy is comprised of two Greek words, demos (people) and kratos (strength or power). It means "we the people" have the power to create the government and laws under which we shall live. Democracy has a second premise, that all men and women are created equal under the law.

Ideally, a truly democratic government should provide its people with the right to vote, a good education, quality health care, affordable housing, a safe environment, equal opportunity for all, fair taxes and meaningful work.

Unfortunately, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush don't share that understanding of democracy. They have an anti-democratic philosophy of government. Indeed, Mr. Reagan said about our own democracy, "Government is not the solution. Government is the problem."

This president believes the market alone can fix an economy. For him, the only truly important role for government is national defense. That's why he fights for less and smaller government for domestic programs, promotes supply-side economics, pushes tax cuts for the rich and big corporations (in times of peace and war) and underfunds his own legislative priority, the No Child Left Behind Act.

To reinforce this conservative philosophy, he appoints federal judges with similar conservative anti-government ideology, who interpret the law and the Constitution to favor market forces over human rights and civil liberties, limiting the reach and effectiveness of government.

Mr. Bush knows that America's democratic government cannot guarantee a fair distribution of its promises to all of its citizens without regulation and specific rights enumerated in our Constitution. But none of the eight "rights" listed above as democratic ideals is in the Constitution - not even the affirmative right to vote. In America, these rights are not constitutional rights and not human rights. They are state rights.

For years, anti-federal, pro-states'-rights conservatives have used their control over government to fight for land rights, oil rights, natural resource rights, financial and business rights at home and overseas. But tragically, our "democratic government of the people" leaves 41 million Americans without health insurance. Everyone wants quality health care, but our democracy isn't delivering it. Still, Mr. Bush wrongly believes the private sector should and will provide it.

Without affirmative new rights in our own Constitution, our democracy cannot live up to its promise that all men (and women) are created equal in America, let alone achieve such lofty promises elsewhere.

Yet, in Iraq, the president is trying to impose a U.S.-led, outside-in, top-down "democracy" to match his top-down, trickle-down economics. But remember, our democracy was born through a bottom-up American revolution of values that led to a declaration of independence, a revolutionary war and, ultimately, a Constitution. Its genesis was the opposite of gunpoint democracy.

Unlike Lincoln, Mr. Bush is trying to build a more perfect world before he builds a more perfect Union. But, like Lincoln, we should be trying to complete "the great task remaining before us" in our own democracy, even as we seek - alongside others - to build a more perfect, humane and truly democratic world.

Jesse L. Jackson Jr., a Democrat, represents the 2nd District of Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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