- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004

Virtually everyone reading this newspaper can drive a car. But how many of you could build a car? The same is true of democracy. Most people raised in a democratic society know how to operate in that environment — they know they have rights and they know there are rules about how far those rights extend.

For example, freedom of speech is guaranteed in America. But go to a candidate’s rally and try to take over the podium to make a free speech and the cops will drag you away. By the same token, they probably won’t drag you away to the gallows as occasionally happens in other parts of the world.

To those accustomed to democratic habits and practices, this makes sense. To Iraqis and Haitians, for example, such distinctions may seem perplexing.

For this and additional reasons, “nation-building” is an arduous task. Actually, even the term is misleading. Nations are “historically developed communities” with their own territory, economy, culture and common language. That’s not something you send in the Marines or even the Army Corps of Engineers to build.

What you can help build is a state, a government organized around democratic principles.

Literally, democracy means “rule by the people,” but in modern times it implies a form of government in which the people rule indirectly by electing representatives to manage affairs of state for them.

The notion democracy means majority rule is mistaken. Majority rule without minority rights is not democratic, it’s majoritarian, a variety of totalitarianism. If majority rule alone defined democracy, a slave state could call itself democratic. So long as 51 percent of the electorate had voted to enslave the remaining 49 percent, what would be the problem?

So democracy implies freedom. And freedom requires minority rights, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press, religious freedom, rights for women and tolerance of an organized opposition. Absent such freedoms, elections alone will not bring about a transition to democracy.

Recall this example: In the early 1930s, Adolf Hitler waged a serious election campaign. His goal was not just to win office but also to obtain sufficient power to dismantle German democracy. At a fund-raiser with leading industrialists, he stated flatly: “We are about to hold the last election.”

Similarly, the esteemed scholar Bernard Lewis has pointed out that when proponents of democracy compete with radical Islamists, “the democrats are of course at a disadvantage. Their ideology requires them, even when in power, to give freedom and rights to the Islamist opposition. The Islamists, when in power, are under no such obligation. On the contrary, their principles require them to suppress what they see as impious and subversive activities.”

In other words, democracy is more than one man, one vote, one time. Those attempting to build democracies — Ambassador Paul Bremer leaps to mind — must recognize some of the people most eager to participate in elections may be enemies of democracy. They should be dealt with accordingly.

The domestic politics of democracy-building are curious. Conservatives and libertarians have generally been dubious about such missions. So-called neoconservatives, however, have dissented from their brethren on the right. President Bush moved from the conservative to the neocon position after September 11, 2001 — after the consequences of indulging anti-Western, terrorist-sponsoring dictatorships became apparent to him.

Those on the left have tended to be of at least two minds — favoring nation-building efforts in Haiti, Kosovo and Bosnia during the Clinton years, for instance, but disdainful of such efforts in Iraq now.

The far left regards Mr. Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom” in the Middle East as imperialist. More moderate voices on the left argue for letting the United Nations take the lead in democracy-building — ignoring that the United Nations includes both dictatorships and democracies, and has no particular preference for one form of government or the other.

The fashionable view in Europe — the view heard often on the BBC, for example — is that exporting democracy means imposing Western or even American values. That presupposes most Arabs and Muslims would rather have no say as to who governs them and view even basic freedoms as outlandish.

Such elitist premises deserve further examination, not least in light of the recent adoption of an interim constitution by Iraq’s Governing Council, a body that includes Arab Sunni and Shi’ite, as well as Kurdish leaders. The document includes not only basic rights but also such relatively sophisticated ideas as habeas corpus and civilian control of the military.

“It’s a historic document,” said Faisal Istrabadi, one of the lead drafters. “In the best tradition of democracies — granted we are an aspiring democracy — we all compromised.”

Entifadh Qanbar, one of Saddam Hussein’s military commanders until 1987, when he was arrested and subsequently escaped, added: “It required a lot of effort and hard work.”

Hard work is what it takes to build a democratic society. Other forms of government are easier. “Democracies are more difficult to create,” Bernard Lewis has written. “They are also more difficult to destroy.”

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. This article was distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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