The case against spreading democracy

March 03, 2006|By MICHAEL KINSLEY

The case for democracy is "self-evident," as someone once put it. The case for the world's most powerful democracy to take as its mission the spreading of democracy around the world is pretty self-evident, too: What's good for us is good for others. Those others will be grateful. A world full of democracies created or protected with our help ought to be more peaceful and prosperous and favorably disposed toward us.

There is no valid case against democracy. You used to hear a lot that democracy is not suitable for some classes of foreigners: simply incompatible with the cultures of East Asia (because deference to authority is too ingrained there) or the Arab Middle East (because everybody is a religious fanatic) or Africa (because they're too "tribal," or too predisposed to rule by a "big daddy" ... or something). But this line of argument has gone out of fashion, pushed off stage by free and fair elections in some surprising places.

But the case against spreading democracy - especially through military force - as a mission of the U.S. government is also pretty self-evident. American blood and treasure should not be spent on democracy for other people. Or, short of that absolute, there are limits to the blood and treasure the U.S. should be expected to spend on democracy elsewhere, and the very nature of war makes that cost hard to predict and hard to limit.

The present debate over when to use American power in defense of democracies other than our own is at least more wholesome than the previous debate about using force to thwart or overthrow foreign democracies.

The argument against tolerating Communist governments elected fair and square used to be that the election that brought them to office would likely be the last.

But today's concern about what we might call "nasty democracy" is in some ways more depressing. It is not that a regime will use democracy in the short run to stifle it in the long run. The danger is that democracy will reveal the people's true and continuing preference for a society with no place for all the other Western liberal values that our founding document calls "self-evident" (equality, freedom to pursue happiness, and so on). Even worse, these societies may decide to export their distaste for Western values just as we try to export the values themselves - and they may not agonize, Western-style, over the distinction between violent and nonviolent means of persuasion.

Recent news has left us awash in examples: the triumph of Hamas in the Palestinian elections; the emergence of a similarly attractive group, the Muslim Brotherhood, as an electoral force in Egypt; and above all, the result of the American-sponsored election in Iraq, which seems to be just about the opposite of the lion-and-lamb tranquillity that democracy enthusiasts had hoped.

But if these developments gave President Bush any pause about his aggressive democratization project, he gave no sign of it Tuesday during his surprise drop-by in Afghanistan. From his description, that legendarily bloodthirsty land has been transformed into something like Minnesota. It's a place where "men and women are respected" and "young girls can go to school" and "people are able to realize their dreams." We shall see.

In his biography of Margaret Thatcher, the British journalist Hugo Young used the term "inspirational certainty" to describe the strength that some political leaders get from refusing to let anything change their minds. Mr. Bush would like to have it. But on this particular issue, at least, he can't because he actually has changed his mind. In the 2000 election, he opposed what was then called nation-building - and he opposed it for all the self-evident reasons. Now he supports it, for equally self-evident reasons. If the arguments for both sides of some policy question are self-evident, the correct answer must not be. But Mr. Bush avoids the trap of complication by taking his self-evident truths sequentially.

He parries any challenge to explain his change of views with the simple assertion that 9/11 changed everything. It's easy to see how that day might have changed his opinion about the urgency of the war on terrorism. But how exactly is it supposed to have changed his opinion about the aggressive pursuit of democracy as a tactic in that war?

We don't want a President Hamlet, publicly rehearsing his doubts as he leads the nation into battle. But the men and women risking their lives for democracy in Iraq deserve at least a tiny sense that the president who sends them there has considered the evidence against his policy and has some sense of why he rejects it.

Michael Kinsley is a social commentator who lives in Seattle. His e-mail is

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