Bolstering freedom without bloodshed

February 20, 2005|By Kurt L. Schmoke

SINCE HIS inauguration, people have debated what President Bush actually meant by his declaration of his intention to promote freedom and democracy around the world.

In trying to understand this Bush doctrine, it may be useful to consider an unheralded but significant act taken by Mr. Bush early in his first term that promoted freedom and liberty in a far-away country without the use of U.S. military force. The country is Madagascar, an Indian Ocean island nation off the southeastern coast of Africa.

By law, Madagascar is a constitutional democracy. But by 2001, its president, Didier Ratsiraka, had assumed almost dictatorial control. He came to power as a Marxist strongman professing his support for Libyan leader Col. Muammar el Kadafi and for Soviet socialism. He later changed and became a staunch U.S. ally, especially during the administration of the first President Bush.

Unfortunately, while Mr. Ratsiraka professed allegiance to democratic governments abroad, he was undermining democracy at home. He tolerated corruption among his appointed officials and siphoned off foreign financial aid to support his family.

Six candidates entered the presidential elections in December 2001. The opposition candidate who drew most attention was the mayor of the capital of Antananarivo, Marc Ravalomanana. He was a successful businessman who was elected mayor in 1999. He brought unparalleled sanitation and safety to the city during his brief tenure.

Presidential elections were decided by two rounds of voting because the law required that the winner receive more than 50 percent of the vote. Mr. Ratsiraka's government had a great deal of control over the mechanism for conducting a runoff election. Therefore, it was Mr. Ravalomanana's goal to win a clear majority in the first round. He succeeded.

Madagascar plunged into turmoil when Mr. Ratsiraka refused to acknowledge that Mr. Ravalomanana had won a clear majority. Both sides initially turned to the courts. The High Constitutional Court first supported the government, calling for a runoff. But after further review, the court reversed its decision and declared Mr. Ravalomanana the winner.

Mr. Ratsiraka again refused to accept the decision, so the country descended into chaos. Mr. Ratsiraka fled the capital and set up operations in his home province. His supporters blockaded roads into the major cities and later blew up bridges leading to the capital. Madagascar was nearing civil war. A consensus developed that only the intervention of the international community could break the stalemate, but no effective intervention seemed eminent.

The major international powers initially seemed indifferent. They later took the traditional position of deferring to the leaders of the Organization of African Unity. The United States joined other Western nations in deferring to the OAU. Then something happened.

Without announcing his reasons, President Bush instructed U.S. officials to take a fresh look at the Madagascar situation. They went beyond traditional diplomatic protocols to investigate the facts. They determined that the voting process was fair and that the results announced by the High Constitutional Court reflected the will of the Malagasy people.

Mr. Bush decided to take the lead role and not to defer to the OAU or to France, the former colonial power in Madagascar. On June 26, 2002, Madagascar's traditional independence day, Mr. Bush sent a letter to Mr. Ravalomanana informing him that the United States recognized him as the legitimately elected president of Madagascar.

The impact of the Bush action was immediate and profound. Within a week, Japan, Germany and Britain recognized the new president. So did France, eventually. Mr. Ratsiraka fled the country, the leaders of the army and police declared their support for Mr. Ravalomanana, the blockades were lifted and civil war was averted.

Because of this nonmilitary but important intervention by the United States, the 15 million people who live in Madagascar received the opportunity to pursue their dreams of freedom and democracy.

Kurt L. Schmoke, a former mayor of Baltimore, is dean of the Howard University School of Law.

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