Commentary

Bush Hasn’t Learned His Democratic Lesson

The G8 Summit demonstrated that President Bush still doesn’t appreciate how difficult it will be to democratize the Middle East. Beneath the appearance of pragmatism and a stated willingness to accept the wishes of the people lies the same neoconservative commitment to proactively spread liberal democracy throughout this unsuitable region.

In his Nov. 6, 2003 speech before the National Endowment for Democracy, President Bush pledged that the United States would embark on a decades-long commitment to bring democracy to the Middle East. But democracy is not a gift President Bush or any other G8 leader can bestow on people in distant lands.

Although the goal is laudable, the Bush administration will be disappointed with its effort to establish a stable liberal democracy in any Middle Eastern nation. That’s the verdict rendered by history, the contemporary reality of the region, and our own government experts.

One might have assumed, or at least hoped, that the intractable problems that have bedeviled the construction of a democratic political structure in Iraq would have forced the Bush administration to seriously reassess its self-described “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.” However, Bush steadfastly holds to his original position, hence his “Middle East Initiative” unveiled at the G8 Summit.

This initiative makes five proposals: a Greater Middle East forum to enable discussions between government officials and ordinary citizens; a democracy assistance group to support existing efforts by non-governmental organizations to foster democratic practices; a foundation for democracy to serve as a regional version of the National Endowment for Democracy, which provides financial assistance to democracy activists; a literacy project; and a small business finance project.

None of these proposals are harmful. Some may do a little bit of good. But even viewed as a whole, they miss the big picture regarding the nature of democratization. Today, the Middle East lacks the cultural conditions, such as a democratic history, political trust, and social tolerance, to sustain a democracy.

President Bush’s position stands in opposition to a classified Feb. 26, 2003, State Department report that expressed doubt that installing a new regime in Iraq will foster the spread of democracy in the Middle East. In trying to build a democratic Middle East, the president and his neoconservative advisers ignore the most basic principle of human existence: People don’t like being bossed around. They particularly don’t like being bossed around by foreigners.

President Bush draws deliberate comparison to President Reagan’s June 1982 speech, in which Reagan predicted the demise of Soviet communism because it failed to respect individual rights and to reward individual creativity. Bush correctly predicts that “over time, free nations grow stronger and dictatorships grow weaker.”

However, the belief that the United States can orchestrate this process is based on the same fatal conceit that brought down the Soviet empire: namely, that governments, and especially foreign governments, can realistically dictate noble ends. Given his mistrust of government, Ronald Reagan understood this as well as anyone.

Instead, as President Bush has said, the success of freedom rests upon the willingness of free peoples to sacrifice. But the people of the Middle East must make these sacrifices. Revealingly, the United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars on democracy programs in the Middle East during the 1990s with no noticeable effect. Heavy-handed attempts to force democracy upon the region will ultimately prove counter-productive toward those ends, as the events in Iraq show us every day.

The ingredients for successful democracy are found in domestic political kitchens. Democracy is a dish that Iraqis and others throughout the Middle East must prepare for themselves. Neither a fancy summit communiqué nor a heralded initiative alters that reality.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government and Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.