Outside editorial: Democracy has become a dirty word in much of the world

Posted: Monday, April 07, 2008

F reedom, President Bush likes to say, "is a gift of the almighty." But much of the world now believes America's true view is that democracy should be imposed with the muzzle of a gun.

For the first time in a generation, the number of nations turning from autocracy to democracy is on the decline, and non-partisan officials who work in this field blame Bush.

In Washington, democracy promotion is an evergreen issue, somewhere on the agenda for every president, Democrat or Republican. But Bush elevated it to a status not seen in decades. Some might question his motivation. After all, he hoisted his freedom agenda about the time it became clear that no weapons of mass destruction were to be found in Iraq. Suddenly his Iraq policy changed. America would bring democracy to the Iraqi people, and they would serve as a balefire for the larger Middle East.

As everyone knows by now, the results have been disheartening. When Bush and his aides pushed for free elections in Egypt, the government imprisoned opposition candidates and beat up voters. In Lebanon, the administration persuaded Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon - a good thing - and then pressed the Lebanese to hold elections. The result: an impressive showing by Hezbollah, the terrorist group. Now the Lebanese government has been paralyzed since November.

In Palestine, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her aides served as campaign consultants for the utterly corrupt and incompetent Fatah party and then expressed shock and dismay when Hamas, the irredentist terrorist group, won. That has brought a cascading series of inauspicious consequences.

And then there's Iraq. What more can anyone say?

As all of this proceeded, an impressive phalanx of government-funded organizations charged with promoting democracy around the world discovered to their dismay that Bush's democracy initiative was pulling the rug out from under their feet. Their workers were evicted from some countries, harassed and shut out in others.

"We've been targeted somehow as advocates of regime change through a militaristic approach," Kenneth Wallach, president of the National Democratic Institute, told me. In many countries, "democracy has become a pejorative word."

His organization and its Republican counterpart, the International Republican Institute - both funded by Congress - have been working to build democratic traditions in scores of nations for 25 years. And never before, Wallach added, have conditions for his staff been so hostile. The Bush administration blowback is sweeping over other countries, too.

"Going to Cairo, say, and talking about democracy today means you are an American spy," complained a senior German official, speaking under ground rules that do not permit me to use his name.

Freedom House, a private non-partisan group dedicated to democracy promotion, publishes an annual report on democracy around the world. This year's report, just out, says "the year 2007 was marked by a notable setback for global freedom" that is "reflected in reversals in one-fifth of the world's countries" including Russia, Kenya, Nigeria, Venezuela and Egypt.

The report concludes that the "rationale for push-back policies" in many countries where democracy is in retreat "is that they are necessary to prevent outside forces, primarily the United States, from meddling in their sovereign affairs." Freedom House is hardly a rabid anti-Bush group; Washington provides 80 percent of its funding.

All of this leads to a paradoxical conclusion: For all his devotion to this issue, Bush has poisoned the brand. Even with all his florid rhetoric, his staff has essentially given up.

In 2005 and 2006, Rice traveled often to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, where she spoke frequently of the need for "reform and democracy," as she said after a meeting with the Egyptian foreign minister in Cairo two years ago. That same year, in Saudi Arabia, she and Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal "talked in detail about human potential, talked about how to enhance political participation, how to enhance the empowerment of women," she said.

In her most recent trip there, last August, the subject didn't come up. And in Cairo last month, Rice mentioned democracy only once - while explaining why she had issued an official waiver that allowed the United States to give Egypt $1.3 billion in military aid this year - even though the United States had found the government guilty of numerous, serious human rights abuses. Many of them were against Egyptians campaigning for democratic freedoms.

"We believe that this relationship with Egypt is an important one," she said. "The waiver was the right thing to do." Standing next to her, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit looked triumphant.

• Joel Brinkley is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford University.

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