By William Fisher
I recently e-mailed Neil Hicks, the director of international programs for Human Rights First, seeking his thoughts on a new poll of the U.S. public that shows rapidly declining support for President Bush's pledge to spread democracy throughout the world.
His response was more eloquent than any words of mine. Here it is:
"It is not surprising that there is growing skepticism among Americans about the goal of actively promoting democracy in other countries through U.S. policy. There are several reasons for this, in my view:
"First: the administration's democracy promotion strategy has been very broadly defined and yet invoked inconsistently from country to country. While the headline principles of freedom, women's empowerment and elections are proclaimed frequently, there is no consistent benchmark for implementation of democracy at the specific country level, which is the only place where the practical impact of the policy can be discerned. This leaves the actual content of the policy somewhat amorphous, and makes it easy for its critics to accuse the U.S. government of engaging in double standards and pursuing these goals selectively in its own interests.
"Second: the U.S. has undermined its credibility as a promoter of democracy and human rights by its own practices in the Global War on Terrorism, including, as the U.S. public is increasingly aware, torture, deaths in custody and arbitrary detention.
"Third: the initial results of the policy have been complicated and troubling. While I am concerned that current difficulties -- in Iraq, where what is now portrayed as a war to bring democracy appears to be leading to a civil war, or the Palestinian territories, where a relatively free election produced a government that is opposed to U.S. policies, and whose commitment to democracy is questionable - should not result in the abandonment of a global U.S. posture that actively promotes democracy and human rights, such complications will inevitably sap public support.
"We are at a precarious moment where some are willing to jettison the Bush administration's championing of democracy promotion as an instrument of national security policy. This would be a shame. In my view the proper response is not to revert to the discredited old practices of accommodating dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
"I welcome the emphasis that President Bush and other senior administration officials have placed on the link between oppression and the absence of basic freedoms on the one hand and instability and global insecurity in the other. This diagnosis requires a sustained, results oriented approach to promoting human rights and democracy that applies consistent principles and standards to all countries, and is responsive to the varied particular contexts of each country situation."
There are many things I like about this statement. But high among them is that this is not your garden-variety Bush-bashing polemic. It credits the president with the right vision but suggests that we need a more thoughtful strategy for its implementation.
Development experts have disagreed with one another for years about whether "nation building" is a legitimate concept. But there are two parts of that discussion about which there is virtually no disagreement. First, democracy grows from within; it can not be imposed from outside. And, second, no democracy will ever emerge at the point of a spear.
Despite our flawed strategy and our many tactical mistakes over the past six years, the U.S. still has lots of lots of non-military carrots and sticks to apply. As Neil Hicks points out, we don't have to revert to supporting repressive and authoritarian dictatorships in the Middle East (or anywhere else). And we don't have to reward those regimes just because they're such good partners in the "Global War on Terror". After all, getting rid of terrorists protects them as well as us.
What we ought to be spending our time thinking about is how to use our leverage and our aid dollars to help countries to build democratic institutions - civil societies, independent judiciaries, respect for the rule of law, law enforcement authorities who honor human rights and enforce penalties for corruption.
Because it is only such institutions that can give birth to transparency, good governance and, ultimately, democracy.
Just don't expect any overnight transformations. This kind of nation building is generational.