American Attitude on Promoting Democracy Gets a Thumbs-down

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In his 2005 State of the Union Address, President Bush committed the United States to an active democratization program aimed at ending tyranny in the world. This idea has emerged in the post-9/11 era as one of the central principles of the US foreign policy. Its promoters have been saying that the US can no longer ignore the authoritarian nature of many governments, particularly in the Middle East, whose lack of political and economic freedom is seen as contributing to religious radicalism, support for terrorist groups and anti-Americanism. If implemented, this democratization program would be almost a 180-degree turn-around for the US which has historically paid lip service to the goal of democratization, while hypocritically maintaining good relations with non-adversarial authoritarian states in strategic areas.

Iraq is the current test case for this experiment. Now that the myth of WMDs is buried, President Bush has stated that the Iraq War was justified on the grounds of removing Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime and replacing it with a democratic alternative. The Administration’s hope is that a viable democracy in Iraq will contribute to spreading liberal political values to other Middle East, thereby deflating support for terrorism and making the US more secure.

However, the road to implanting democracy in Iraq has been anything but smooth. Hardly a day passes by when tens of Iraqis don’t die from bombs. Just the last week (of September) saw deaths of nearly 200 Iraqis.

In a recent conference held on September 5-7, organized by the New America Foundation on “Terrorism, Security & America’s Purpose,” it was acknowledged that insurgency/terrorist attacks (anywhere in the world) are not driven by religion “as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland.”[1]

While Zarqawi – phantom or real – is portrayed as the nihilist terrorist, a war criminal, responsible for much of the mayhems in Iraq, there is now ample evidence that the British SAS may have also been involved in planting bombs so as to start off sectarian violence in Iraq.[2] [Fatah al-Sheikh, a member of the Iraqi National Assembly, was reported saying, “There is a huge campaign for the agents of foreign occupiers to enter and plant hatred between the sons of the Iraqi people and spread rumors in order to scare the one from the other.-¦ The occupiers are trying to start religious incitement, and if it does not happen, then they will start an internal Shi’ite incitement.”]

Notwithstanding such disturbing developments, there are fundamental questions about whether democracy should be viewed as a universal value, whether the United States should universally promote it and if so whether it should use coercive tactics such as military force. The dethronement of the Iraqi dictator has resulted in deaths of nearly a hundred thousand civilians, let alone nearly half a million infants preceding the war. Are such high civilian casualties acceptable for implanting democracy?

Public attitudes on these issues are important, because in principle they should influence the policy direction the United States takes. A pertinent question in this regard is: does the government policy reflect people’s attitude?

In order to shed further light on American attitudes on these critical issues, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (the largest independent, nonprofit international affairs organizations in the United States that provides a forum for the consideration of significant international issues and their bearing on American foreign policy) and the Program on International Policy Attitudes (it conducts research on American attitudes in both the public and in the policymaking community toward a variety of international and foreign policy issues) conducted a poll September 15-21 with a nationwide sample of 808 Americans (margin of error was +/- 3.5-4.0% depending on the sample size for each question). The Internet-based poll was fielded by Knowledge Networks, a polling, social science, and market research farm in Menlo Park, California.[3] On September 29, ’05 they published their report “Americans on Promoting Democracy.”[4]

The key findings of the study are:

1. Promoting Democracy with Military Force:– Asked simply whether they favored or opposed using military force to overthrow a dictator, only 35% were in favor while 55% were opposed. Only 27% said that “using military force to overthrow a dictator” “does more good than harm,” while a 58% majority says this “does more harm than good.” Perhaps more telling, a larger majority – 66% – said “warning a government that the US might intervene militarily if it does not carry out some democratic reforms” does more harm than good; only 21% thought the opposite.

2. Iraq War:– Seventy-four percent of respondents said that the goal of overthrowing Iraq’s authoritarian government and establishing a democracy was not sufficient reason to go to war with Iraq. Nearly three-fourths (72%) said that the experience in Iraq has made them feel worse about the prospect of using military force to bring about democracy in the future. Respondents were told that “in October Iraqis will vote on whether to accept or reject a new constitution that recognizes Islamic law as a main source of legislation. Some are concerned that this may undermine the rights of women.” Interestingly, 64% said that “if the Iraqis vote to accept the constitution” the US should “accept the constitution as it is.” Less than one-fourth (23%) said US should threaten to withdraw support unless the constitution is changed in ways the US specifies.

3. Benefits of Democracy:– When presented with two statements, only 26% chose the one that said “When there are more democracies the world is a safer place.” Instead, 68% chose the statement “Democracy may make life better within a country, but it does not make the world a safer place.” They are divided about whether democracy undermines support for terrorist groups, or whether democracies are less likely to go to war with each other or more likely to be friendly to the US.

While 78% said that democracy is the best form of government, only 50% said that it is the best for all countries while 43% disagreed. Only 28% believed that eventually nearly all countries will become democracies. However, a majority does not categorically assume that Islamic countries are incapable of becoming democratic. Only 34% said that “democracy and Islam are incompatible,” while a clear majority of 55% believes “it is possible for Islamic countries to be democratic.”

4. Democracy as a Priority in US Foreign Policy:– When offered two positions, only 38% said that “As a rule, US foreign policy should encourage countries to be democratic.” Fifty-four percent preferred the position that “As a rule, US foreign policy should pursue US interests, which sometimes means promoting democracy and sometimes means supporting non-democratic governments.”

However, when asked how they feel if a country goes through a democratic process of its own that results in a government less friendly to the US, a plurality said that they would see it as positive. Forty-eight percent said they “would want to see a country become more democratic even if this resulted in the country being more like to oppose US policies.” Thirty-nine percent disagreed. Asked specifically about Saudi Arabia, a majority (54%) said that the US should support free elections in Saudi Arabia even if it is likely that the elected government would be unfriendly. Just 36% thought the US should not. What is more, only a quarter (26%) believes that “if Saudi Arabia were to hold free elections -¦ the elected government would be more friendly to the US.” Another 18% believed the new government would be less friendly.

The public is divided on whether the US should pressure Pakistan to hold elections. Forty-three percent thinks that if President Musharraf were to hold election Islamic fundamentalists may win.

5. Promoting Democracy with Diplomatic and Cooperative Methods:– A large majority favors the US promoting democracy through diplomatic and cooperative methods including helping emerging democracies with aid and technical assistance in conducting elections, sending monitors to certify that elections are conducted fairly and honestly, and bringing students, journalists and political leaders from a variety of countries to the US to educate them on how democracy works.

The method of “pressuring a non-democratic government with some economic sanctions, such as reduced trade with the US” fell short of majority support, with 46% seeing it as doing more harm than good and 40% seeing it as positive on balance. On this method, however, there is something of a partisan divide. A clear majority of Democrats (58%) saw sanctions as negative on balance, while 57% of Republicans saw them as positive.

When asked whether, in general, they favored or opposed the method of “supporting dissidents in a non-democratic country,” a clear majority (56%) opposed it, with only 31% in favor. On this issue, both the major parties were in harmony.

Support for using aid as a reward is high, but not for withholding it as a punishment, whether the aid provider is the US government or the World Bank.

6. Working through the UN:– A large majority (68%) prefers working through the UN to promote democracy. A plurality believes that it should be the goal of the UN to promote democracy in the world. Forty-two percent said the UN should not be involved in attempting to influence what kind of government a country has.

7. Pressing for Human Rights:– In contrast to more divided attitudes about pressuring countries to be more democratic, large majorities favor the US putting diplomatic pressure on governments to respect human rights, speaking out against human rights abuses, and encouraging other countries to do the same.

Asked specifically about seven countries -” Burma (Myanmar), China, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia -” a majority-“66% to 70%-“in each case favored putting diplomatic pressure on the government to respect human rights, speaking out against the country’s human rights abuses and encouraging other countries to do the same.

Americans were even more in favor of pressuring these nations on human rights than they were of bringing students, journalists and political leaders to the United States to educate them on democracy. Americans also appear to be ready to accept significant political costs as part of pressing for human rights. In another question on human rights, nearly three-fourths of Americans favored investigating possible human rights abuses even if it meant that the United States would lose the ability to utilize a foreign military base as a result.

8. Reservations about US Democracy:– Some of the reservations Americans have about pressing countries to become more democratic may stem from a lack of confidence that the US is an ideal democracy. Asked how democratic the US government is, on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 meaning not at all democratic and 10 meaning completely democratic), the mean was 6.2. This is a lower score in comparison to other Western democracies such as Canada (7.1), Britain (6.8) and Sweden (6.2). India scored 4, Turkey 3.6, Egypt 3.5, Pakistan 2.3 and China 1.9.

Many Americans feel that their federal elected representatives are not heeding citizens’ views. Asked how much influence the views of the majority of Americans have on the decisions of elected officials in Washington, on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 meaning not at all influential and 10 meaning extremely influential), the mean response was 4.5. When asked how much influence the views of the majority of Americans should have on the decisions of elected officials in Washington, on a scale of 0 to 10, the mean response was 8.0. When asked what percentage of the time Congress makes decisions that are the same as the decisions the majority of Americans would make, the mean answer was 39%-“less than chance.

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Final words: We live in a world of competing political ideologies. For example, while the US has been promoting its version of capitalist democracy as the best global model, Singapore under its former leader Lee Kwan Yew offered a competing capitalist model with an impressive success story. Its mantra was: if you keep the economy booming, the population won’t care about democratic freedoms. That is: people choose stability and growth over messy democracy that can lead to anarchy. [5] It is no surprise that this latter model is popular among many authoritarian regimes, including China – which is now holding up a state-directed version of capitalism. And China is a grand success story. So strong is the gravitating pull of China today that there is hardly a multi-national company that does not want to invest there and open up an office in Shanghai.

There is no doubt that Saddam Hossein of Iraq was one of the worst despots of our time, who – once buttressed by its former western patrons – killed so many human beings. Yet, to many Iraqis living today in the post-Saddam era, his regime brought stability and safety. People knew what was expected from them and what was not, and they felt secure. But in today’s chaotic Iraq, which has turned into the worst killing field of the 21st century, there is no law and order. People don’t know whom to trust. They feel totally helpless and insecure. So the dilemma that many in the aspiring democracies entertain is: what is better for a civilian -” a despotic ruler who brings stability or a system that leads to destruction?

Nearly 900 years ago, one of the best minds of the world, the sage Imam al-Ghazzali was asked to comment upon a similar question, i.e., the ulama’s reluctance to delve into politics and bless one polity over another. He said something that is very insightful and seems to transcend time. The prudent and pragmatic Imam remarked, “The concessions made by us are not spontaneous. But necessity makes lawful what is forbidden… We should like to ask which is to be preferred, anarchy and stoppage of social life for lack of a properly constituted authority, or acknowledgment of the existing power, whatever it be? Of these two alternatives, the jurists cannot but choose the latter.” [6]

It is indeed a sad choice, but probably a more prudent one.

The American poll on democracy reflected cynicism and offered some practical suggestions as to the limits of implanting democracy overseas. While America chest-thumbs itself as the citadel of democracy, most Americans do not believe that their country is governed by the will of the people. In this they are in tune with the rest of the world. A recent Gallup International global survey conducted across more than 65 countries found that 65 per cent of the people believe their governments do not express their will. In Europe the percentage is a whopping 82. [7]

When a system is imperfect in its own turf, it is always difficult to propagate its wisdom outside. Hopefully, the U.S. policy makers and those in the European powerhouses will take heed before getting too carried away by the false sense of perfection and ‘fits-all’ mentality for their western democratic system.

Notes:

[1]. See, e.g., Prof. Robert Pape’s (University of Chicago) “Dying to win: the strategic logic of suicide terrorism.”

[2]. See John Pilger’s “Sinister Events in a Cynical War,” www.antiwar.com, Sept. 28, 2005; also see Yamin Zakaria’s article on the same subject. Times and Mail reported that explosives were found in the SAS men’s unmarked Cressida.

[3]. For more information about the poll methodology, go to www.knowledgenetworks.com/ganp

[4]. http://www.pipa.org/OnlineReports/FP_MakingProcess/
Democratization_Sep05/Democratization_Sep09_rpt_revised.pdf

[5]. As Han Fook Kwang, Warren Fernandez, Sumiko Tan, the authors of Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas (1998) point out, Lee rejected "the notion that all men yearned for democratic freedoms, prizing free speech and the vote over other needs such as economic development. Asian societies, he contended, were different, having evolved separately from the West over the centuries." Lee also argued, "somewhat controversially," that "notions of absolute rights to freedom for individuals would sometimes have to be compromised in order to help maintain public order and security." He granted that once a country has attained a certain level of education and industrialization, it "may need representative government . . . to reconcile conflicting group interests in society and maintain social order and stability. Representative government is also one way for a people to forge a new consensus, a social compact, on how a society settles the trade-off between further rapid economic growth and individual freedoms." He added, "The system of government in China will change. It will change in Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam. It is changing in Singapore. But it will not end up like the American or British or French or German systems.” He was right in his assessment of South East Asia.

[6]. Islamic Wisdom by Habib Siddiqui.

[7]. http://www.eastandard.net/archives/cl/hm_news/
news.php?articleid=29421&date=25/9/2005; see also: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4245282.stm

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