Bush's Empty Rhetoric on Democracy

Jonathan Chait

Los Angeles Times

October 22, 2004

The good news for the Bush campaign is that this week it won the support of two leaders representing tens of millions of people. The bad news is that none of those people live in the United States.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin asserted: "International terrorism has as its goal to prevent the election of President Bush to a second term. If they achieve that goal, then that will give international terrorism a new impulse and extra power."

The next day, Hasan Rowhani, the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, announced that Tehran favored Bush's reelection. As Associated Press said, Iran "has a history of preferring Republicans over Democrats, who tend to press human rights issues."

Of course, neither Iranians nor Russians can vote in the United States. But that need not stop them from trying to influence the election.

The Guardian, a British newspaper, has enlisted its readers to write letters to Ohioans urging them to vote against Bush. Perhaps the mullahs on Iran's Guardian Council could try to cancel them out. ("Dear Infidel: We are writing to exhort you to reject the son of a pig John Kerry, who plans to raise your taxes and who lets his wife dress like a whore.")

It's ironic that while Republicans have mocked Kerry for claiming the support of foreign leaders, it is Bush who has reaped the only two actual foreign leader endorsements. The deeper irony is who's endorsing him.

Bush, remember, claims that the centerpiece of his foreign policy is democracy. Alas, his overseas support comes from an aspiring Russian strongman and an Iranian theocrat. So, while Bush is declaring, as he did last week, that "we will win the war on terror and make America safer by advancing the cause of freedom and democracy," at least two enemies of democracy are betting he won't.

There are two problems with Bush's policy of fostering democracy everywhere. The first is that it's not his actual policy. Bush's closest allies include a rogues gallery of thugs and other democracy-haters. He not only stood by but actively blessed efforts by Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan to snuff out opposition parties (in Pakistan's case, even secular ones).

With Uzbekistan, Bush initiated a strategic partnership in 2002 that was supposed to be conditioned upon human rights improvements, but he waived the requirement for each of the last two years.

In Pakistan, Bush's State Department blessed an "election" that even the feckless European Union pointed out was rigged. Bush has abandoned even token pressure for democracy in places such as Russia and China.

To be sure, there is a perfectly sensible reason for these capitulations. Uzbekistan, Pakistan and other unsavory governments provide us with valuable assistance in the war on terror. But this proves that Bush is actually motivated not by democracy promotion but by traditional interest-based politics. This administration helps countries that help us, regardless of how they treat their own citizens. When you push for democracy only when it coincides with other foreign policy interests, that's a sign democracy isn't your guiding principle.

When Bush does emphasize democracy, it's often a pretext. Bush (rightly) refused to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority until it democratized. In truth, the real reason to freeze out the authority was not its despotic character but its inability (or unwillingness) to crack down on terrorists. And the underlying problem here was that lots of Palestinians support terrorism. A more democratic Palestinian government might very possibly be even more complicit in terrorism. Surely a Palestinian strongman who ruthlessly suppressed terrorists would be more to Bush's liking than a freely elected terrorist-enabler.

And that's the second problem with making democracy the centerpiece of our fight against terrorism. Although spreading freedom in the Islamic world should thwart terrorism in the long run, in the short run it can have the opposite effect.

The Palestinians are not alone in this. Throughout the Islamic world, with Iran perhaps a notable exception, people want their governments to be more anti-American. (The dynamic holds true as well in Europe, where most democracies oppose U.S. policies in Iraq, and those that support us do so despite popular opposition.) This is our dilemma in Iraq too. Surely the most popular Iraqi party will be the one that most forcefully demands that U.S. troops leave, even with insurgents still at large.

Bush and his supporters act as if anti-Americanism is simply the necessary and worthwhile price we pay for our principled advocacy of freedom everywhere. The truth is that anti-Americanism has prevented us from consistently advocating democracy throughout the world. And the inconstancy of our belief in democracy — which the citizens of pro-American dictatorships everywhere have noticed and exploited — makes anti-Americanism all the worse. There may be a way out of this dilemma, but preaching the universality of democracy and practicing otherwise is surely not it.