Sometimes I think that President Bush’s critics need to put up a sign somewhere in their rooms that reads: “Some things are true even if George W. Bush believes them.” A visceral dislike for the president is boxing many otherwise sensible people into a corner because they cannot bring themselves to agree with anything he says.
How else to explain the churlish reaction among so many DEMOCRATS, EUROPEANS AND intellectuals to the president’s speech on democracy in the Middle East last week? Whatever the problems—and I’ll get to them—as a speech it stands as one of the most intelligent and eloquent statements by a president in recent memory. (Don’t take my word for it: read it at whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/11/20031106-2.html.) If it marks a real shift in strategy, it will go down in history as Bush’s most important speech.
The president expanded on an analysis that he and national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice have been veering toward for several months. He argued that a deficit of freedom and openness were at the heart of the Middle East’s dysfunctions, that neither Islam nor Arab culture made liberty and democracy impossible there, and that American foreign policy had for too long supported a corrupt status quo that has been bad for the Arabs and bad for the West. “Sixty years of Western nations’ excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe,” he noted.
To change policy and achieve his lofty ambitions, President Bush announced a “forward strategy for freedom” that must be adopted for decades to come. Here is the hole in the doughnut. The “forward strategy” is never fleshed out, not even in a few lines, has no substantive elements to it and no programs associated with it. In fact it is mentioned only at the tail end of the speech. What explains this strange mismatch between a powerful statement of goals and virtual silence about the means?
I think that the president—and many of his advisers—find it easy to embrace democracy but not the means to get there. Actually, they like one method. Let’s call it the “silver bullet” theory of democratization. It holds that every country is ready for democracy. It’s just evil tyrants who stand in its way. Kill the tyrant, hold elections and the people will embrace democracy and live happily ever after. This theory is particularly seductive to neoconservatives because it means that the one government agency they love—the military—is the principal force for democratization around the world.
The second theory of democratization could be called the “long, hard slog” (thanks, Mr. Rumsfeld). It holds that genuine democracy requires the building of strong political institutions, a market economy and a civil society. In order to promote democracy, in this vision, you need economic reform, trade, exchange programs, legal and educational advances, and hundreds of such small-bore efforts. The agencies crucial to this process are the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, even, God forbid, the European Union and the United Nations. After all, the EU provides almost twice as much foreign aid as the United States. And it is the United Nations that produces the much-heralded Arab Development Reports, which President Bush quoted in his speech.
The president must see that the first strategy has reached its limits. We have used military force in Afghanistan and Iraq, and while it has rid those countries of evil dictatorships, it has not brought them democracy. That goal remains fully dependent on the second strategy. And beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, unless Washington is going to invade all the countries of the Middle East, democracy will come only through a process of reform and modernization. But the administration cannot bring itself to fully support this softer strategy of democratization or call for more of it. (Real men don’t do foreign aid.) American efforts to promote democracy, for example, take up about 6 percent of our aid budget, just over $700 million. Why not double this?
For many of the administration’s ideologues, the long, hard slog toward liberal democracy is boring and unsexy. It means constant engagement, aid, multilateral efforts and a world not of black and white but of grays. Jordan’s Abdullah is a monarch, but he is a genuine liberalizer; his opponents in Parliament are elected but reactionaries. In the only illogical part of his speech, Bush dismissed the idea that countries could be unready for democracy, and then devoted paragraphs to explaining why democracy would take time to flourish in the Middle East.
The neoconservative writer Robert Kagan recently declared, “We do not really know how to build a liberal society… But we do know a free and fair election when we see one.” This is both defeatist and wrong. In fact, we know what makes a liberal society—independent courts and political institutions, markets, a free press, a middle class—but building it takes time and effort. If you cannot embrace that process, then you are not really embracing democracy.
Fareed Zakaria writes for MSNBC, you can write the author at firstname.lastname@example.org .