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Jewish Journal

Only democratization can fight Islamists

by Paul Kujawsky

June 28, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Natan Sharansky's June 5-6 Democracy and Security Conference in Prague could reinvigorate the commitment of the United States to support the growth of liberal democracy. If not, the Islamists win a crucial advantage.

There are two basic foreign policy philosophies. The idealist school of thought, which holds that our national interests include the spread of liberal democracy, has a long history in the United States, going back at least to Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. It competes with the realist school, which defines national interests narrowly and elevates stability as the foremost value in international relations. President Bush came to office as a realist, and in a stunning post-Sept. 11 transformation became a hard-core idealist.

However, one can be an inept or ill-served idealist. Bush's errors have led many to reject the underlying theory. But we can throw out the bathwater of Bush's mistakes, while keeping the baby of democratization.

Under the influence of Sharansky's book, "The Case for Democracy," Bush understood that liberal democracies are rarely dangerous to one another. Therefore, fostering democratization abroad bolsters international security and is in our national interest.

As Bush said in Prague, "Years ago, Andrei Sakharov warned that a country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respond to the rights of its neighbors. History proves him right. Governments accountable to their people do not attack each other."

Bush's rhetoric has been superb, but his follow through has been inconsistent. In Egypt, for example, Bush pressed President Hosni Mubarak for multicandidate presidential elections. But the election was held under restrictive regulations that heavily favored the ruling party, and today, Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak, sits in an Egyptian prison.

Former Egyptian political prisoner Saad Eddin Ibrahim said in Prague, "I feel disappointed and betrayed by George Bush. He said that he is promoting democracy, but he has been manipulated by President Hosni Mubarak."

Worse, Bush apparently has a shallow understanding of liberal democracy, equating it with elections. This is clearly nonsense, considering the elections regularly held in such citadels of liberty as the Soviet Union, Cuba and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

In fact, elections without the requisite foundations of an open society, including the rule of law, independent media and noncorrupt security forces, merely permit the most thuggish elements to seize control. This was grimly demonstrated by the Palestinian election that brought Hamas to power.

Nevertheless, this does not invalidate the idealist theory. It simply implies that nurturing liberal democracy requires patience; elections must come at the end, not the beginning, of the process.

Nor has Bush properly used all the foreign policy instruments at his disposal. Military action must be part of the nation's toolbox, but economic and political pressure are probably more effective in the long run during an ideological war, such as the current war against Islamism.

Bush should have learned this from Sharansky. After all, the United States didn't win the Cold War by invading or bombing the Soviet Union. The Jackson/Vannik Amendment, linking trade with free emigration, and the Helsinki accords on human rights did at least as much to topple the U.S.S.R. as NATO's military strength.

Thus, the final document of the Prague conference includes calls for the following:

  • "Seeking national and international initiatives, in the spirit of the Helsinki accords, that link bilateral and international relations to the question of human rights."

  • "Exerting pressure through peaceful diplomatic, political and economic means on governments and groups abusing human rights to discontinue their practices."

  • "Providing incentives, through diplomatic, political and economic means, to governments and groups willing to improve the human rights record in their countries and to embark on the road to democracy."
Nothing has been as disillusioning, nor given realists so much temptation to say, "I told you so," as Iraq. There's plenty to be unhappy about when considering post-liberation Iraq.

Still, the essence of the problem is that the Islamists are fighting back. That shouldn't surprise us. It would be surprising if they didn't. It just means, as Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said in Prague, "We have a responsibility to support the forces of freedom not only when it is easy but when it is hard."

It is time to renew our commitment to liberalization and democratization -- it is what the Islamists fear most. Congress should pass comprehensive legislation conditioning relations between the United States and nonliberal democracies on progress toward liberalization. This is not imperialism. It is support for decent values and democracies abroad.

We have the right to condition trade, foreign aid and other goodies on the character of the regime with which we are dealing. If we don't, we tacitly support the conditions under which Islamism has flourished. Our national interests are at stake.

Paul Kujawsky is a member of the California Democratic Party Central Committee. Tracker Pixel for Entry

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