Monday, August 20, 2007

President Bush's Democracy Agenda in Tatters

This morning's Washington Post has an excellent article on the Bush administration's troubled global democracy-promotion agenda. The initiative, for all its high-sounding promise, has been battered by bureaucratic resistance and real-life setbacks around the world:

Two and a half years after Bush pledged in his second inaugural address to spread democracy around the world, the grand project has bogged down in a bureaucratic and geopolitical morass, in the view of many activists, officials and even White House aides. Many in his administration never bought into the idea, and some undermined it, including his own vice president. The Iraq war has distracted Bush and, in some quarters, discredited his aspirations. And while he focuses his ire on bureaucracy, Bush at times has compromised the idealism of that speech in the muddy reality of guarding other U.S. interests.

The story of how a president's vision is translated into thorny policy is a classic Washington tale of politics, inertia, rivalries and funding battles -- and a case study in the frustrated ambition of a besieged presidency. Bush says his goal of "ending tyranny" will take many generations, and he aims to institutionalize it as U.S. policy no matter who follows him in the White House. And for all the difficulties of the moment, it may yet, as he hopes, see fruition down the road.

At this point, though, democracy promotion has become so identified with an unpopular president that candidates running to succeed him are running away from it. At a recent debate, they rushed to disavow it. "I'm not a carbon copy of President Bush," one said. Another ventured that "maybe going to elections so quickly is a mistake." A third, asked if he agreed with Bush's vision, replied, "Absolutely not, because I don't think we can force people to accept our way of life, our way of government."
Read the whole thing. Democracy promotion in Washington policy circles took a tailspin after the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections of 2006.

The article notes that while global democracy promotion has been a long-term policy of the United States, President Bush has pushed democracy in foreign policy more than any other U.S. president.

The case for democracy promotion is a good one. Democracies are more peaceful, and they best protect the basic rights of their citizens.

Establishing elections themselves is only one facet of a state's democratic transformation. The history of democratization shows that democratic regimes consolidate over long periods of time. The British case, for example, held up as the world's prototypical parliamentary system, unfolded over centuries of state-building.

Nations need to resolve a series of national crises before they can stablize into patterns of peaceful democracy and policy-making. For example, the basic elements of a constitutional or political regime need to be settled before the onset of divisive and destablizing issues, such as the expansion of suffrage or the amelioration of socioeconomic dislocation from industrialization.

Nations also need to have achieved a widespread sense of community, with boundaries of the nation matching those of the state. Dramatic ethnic diversity must be concomitant with a centralized ethos of national purpose. Political legitimacy needs to be established, and the process for the selection of the leadership needs to gain universal acceptance.

Democracy also flourishes within a culture of political pragmatism and tolerance of difference. Pragmatism is a political style - part of a nation's political culture - that is characterized by a tradition of adjustment and tinkering of the political procedures and policies of the state. It's a politics of "muddling through." Nations that develop a pragmatic style of development, like Britain, are able to establish systems and laws over time, through deliberation, rather than through more ideological or ad hoc methods. Pragmatism lends itself to bargaining and cooperation.

These sociocultural attributes of democratization are not often discussed in the current rage to establish democracy in Iraq, Syria, or Palestine. But each of these nations - and others around the world - will need to establish these cultural attributes if the promise of democratization is to bear fruit.

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