“Was George Bush right?”, asks this Economist article in regards to the surge of democracies in the Middle East.
“As Egyptians thronged the streets, Mr. Bush’s defenders flocked into print to argue that the Arabs’ newly evident hunger for democracy vindicated the former president’s ‘freedom agenda’ in the Middle East…The Bush administration nagged, scolded, bribed and bullied its allies towards greater democracy…All this was based on a particular theory, the post-9/11 neoconservative conclusion that the root causes of terrorism was the absence of Arab democracy. ‘The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,’ said Mr. Bush.” In essence, people are making the case that Bush’s push for free and fair elections abroad was a step in the right direction.
I could not disagree more with this article’s thesis. In Fareed Zakaria’s Foreign Affairs article, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”, Zakaria contends that it is not democracy that America should strive to disseminate throughout the world, but constitutional liberalism.
“‘Suppose the election was declared free and fair,’ and those elected are ‘racists, fascists, separatists, who are publicly opposed to [peace and reintegration]. That is the dilemma,'” stated American diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, cited in Zakaria’s article.
Zakaria contends that, “Democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been reelected or reaffirmed through referenda, are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms…It has been difficult to recognize this problem because for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy- a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.”
Dubbed, ‘illiberal democracy’, this strain of democracy has surged throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East. “The Iranian parliament-,” Zakaria argues, “elected more freely than most in the Middle East- imposes harsh restrictions on speech, assembly, and even dress, diminishing that country’s already meager supply of liberty. Ethiopia’s elected government turns its security forces on journalists and political opponents.”
While 54.8% of the world’s population lived under a democracy in 1997, a whopping 50% of these countries fall under the category of illiberal democracy, denying citizens the right to assembly, freedom of speech, and other basic civil liberties. It’s ironic that after spending the last century spreading democracy under Woodrow Wilson’s, and more recently in George Bush’s foreign policy, we have failed to realize that the political system we have propelled is not necessarily in the world’s best interests. Americans assume that constitutional liberalism is inherent in a democracy. We are sorely mistaken.
A commitment towards constitutional liberalism is not intrinsic in illiberal democracies. “Constitutional liberalism has led to democracy, but democracy does not seem to bring constitutional liberalism,” argues Zakaria. Indeed many presidents and world leaders elected under free and fair elections often undermine their country’s so-called democratic system through subversion of citizens, censorship of the press, and encroachment of basic civil liberties.
Looking upon Mubarak’s recently terminated regime in Egypt, Iran’s persist tyranny, and dozens of other nations plagued by an illiberal democracy, I fail to understand how anyone could contend that Bush’s support of democracies was legitimate, effective, or constructive. His policy called for democracy in its simplest form without any attention paid to constitutionalism or individual rights. Global interests would have been better served had the U.S. made diplomatic efforts to establish constitutional liberalism in the Middle East.
Fareed Zakaria poignantly remarked, “Eighty years ago, Woodrow Wilson took America into the twentieth century with a challenge, to make the world safe for democracy. As we approach the next century, our task is to make democracy safe for the world.”
As we encounter more illegitimate governments and witness the chaos and totalitarian regimes that are prompted by illiberal democracies, the Western World will need to examine the consequences of our espousal of infant democracies.