Democracy by cookie cutter

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — U.S. President George W. Bush claims his policy is to promote democracy because democratic countries do not wage aggressive wars.

The principle of promoting democratic regimes is one that the vast majority of people living in countries where the government can claim to have been democratically elected are likely to support. But there may well not be full agreement on the meaning of democracy or on which countries can rightly claim to be democracies. It is also questionable whether U.S. foreign policy lives up to the president’s claim.

Most observers would probably accept that the United States, Britain, Japan and countries in Western Europe are democracies, but it would be unwise to be complacent about the nature of democracy in our countries.

In the U.S., it is debatable whether the electoral college system for choosing a president fairly represents the wishes of American voters. Moreover, observers of U.S. elections have noted that many constituency boundaries have peculiar shapes and appear to have been rigged to ensure that one party always wins. As a result, it would appear that in only a small number of American local constituencies do voters of the minority party have a chance to influence the outcome. The efficiency of the voting systems in many states also is open to question.

In Britain, while the electoral commission tries to ensure that constituencies fairly reflect population changes, the first-past-the-post voting system can often lead to a majority of members being elected by an electoral minority.

The House of Lords remains unelected, and the party system ensures that the powers of the government between elections can rarely be effectively challenged. The government must, of course, respond to questions in Parliament, but it can try to maintain confidentiality. It is also subject to public scrutiny through the press and the media, but the media are not always objective.

In Japan and Germany, forms of proportional representation help to ensure that the elected government is less of an elected dictatorship, but the rights and interests of minorities are often ignored.

In both the U.S. and Britain, the governments, pleading the threat from terrorism, have introduced legislation that erodes personal freedoms and could undermine such basic freedoms as the right to a fair trial.

Spain was regarded by the U.S. government as a democratic state, at least until the election in March, when the socialists were returned to power in the aftermath of the Madrid bombing. Since then, the U.S. government has snubbed the Spanish government and denigrated its leaders. For Bush supporters apparently, a regime is considered truly democratic only if it supports the policies advocated by the U.S. administration.

It is hard to make sense of the U.S. government’s advocacy of democracy in the world in general. Because the U.S. does not want to confront the governments of Russia and China — as to do so would not be in the U.S. interest — Russian behavior in Chechnya and oppressive Chinese policies in Tibet are downplayed.

In the Middle East, U.S. advocacy of democracy is far from consistent. Saudi Arabia remains America’s main ally in the area, yet by no stretch of the imagination can Saudi Arabia be described as a democracy. The contempt of its government for human rights and especially the rights of women is blatant.

Egypt is apparently less autocratic, but there are frequent reports of human rights abuses and the holding of free elections in the foreseeable future appears remote.

Another U.S. ally, Uzbekistan, is an autocracy with an appalling human rights record.

And despite the thin veneer of democracy allowed in Pakistan, the Americans have understandably decided that they need to support Gen. Pervez Musharraf to obtain his help in the fight against al-Qaeda. This led them to essentially condone the leaking of nuclear secrets from Pakistan.

To Americans, the main democratic regime in the Middle East is Israel. Israeli parliamentary democracy appears to work reasonably well, but the Arab minority suffers discrimination. The Israeli government, by its assassinations and attacks on Palestinians, has shown a sad contempt for human rights. Palestinian suicide attacks, which we must all condemn, are not a sufficient excuse.

Iran does not claim to be a parliamentary democracy and its theocracy is not a complete autocracy. Bush still seems to view it as part of the axis of evil.

Most observers think it very unlikely that democracy can be imposed on Iraq, which has no democratic traditions and is, in any case, deeply divided among the Shiite majority, a Sunni minority and a large Kurdish population. It seems improbable that full, free and fair elections can be held in Iraq on Jan. 30, as planned, even if security in the main centers of population can be assured.

The best that can be hoped for is the emergence of an Iraqi regime that can claim a reasonable element of legitimacy. After all that has happened in Iraq since March 2003, it is inevitable that the new regime will be judged according to how it stands up for Iraqi rights and brings together the various elements in Iraq. It will have to be nationalist in its policies, if it is to win the backing of the Iraqi people. Above all it must not be viewed as an American puppet. It must be prepared to criticize and oppose U.S. policies if it considers them not in Iraq’s national interest.

It will be difficult for the Americans to accept opposition from a new Iraqi administration, but they will have to do so if the new Iraqi regime is to be seen as independent.

The American occupation made a series of blunders after defeating the Hussein regime. The total dissolution of the Iraqi Army, police force and political nexus led directly to looting, lawlessness and chaos. This could have been contained effectively only by a huge increase in the size of the occupation force, but U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld resolutely opposed that. He is no doubt loyal to the president, but loyalty should not be the only criterion for holding office.

Bush oversimplifies by putting other countries into just two categories: (1) those that support the U.S. and are therefore “good” and (2) those that oppose or criticize U.S. policies and are thus “bad.” States that are not democratic can be forgiven and their sins overlooked if they support U.S. policies.

Democratic states that do not support U.S. policies are, in Bush’s view, either not really democratic or have electorates that been misled by foolish or evil leaders. It is hardly surprising, then, that some observers consider the president’s attempt to promote democratic regimes as disingenuous, if not hypocritical.