At the heart of the Bush Doctrine — that ironically eloquent set of foreign policy guidelines that for a time seemed destined to take its place alongside the doctrines of Monroe and Truman — is the idea that the more democratic the world’s nations the more peace, liberty and security is assured. In order to buy into this, one must first accept the axioms that democracies seldom go to war with one other, and that most people yearn for freedom.
It is this second proviso that has been the cause of so much debate. While today 141 of the 192 countries represented in the UN are at least “conditional” democracies, a great many Muslims, Asians, and Africans continue to live under the jackboots of tyrants. Liberals and some Pat Buchanan conservatives hold that many of these people — due largely to their inexperience with self-government — are ill-suited and unprepared for the rigors of an independent judiciary, a civilian-controlled military, religious and press freedoms, and honest, competitive elections. (The same could have been said for the American people of 1776.) Others — perhaps on the evidence of a few British-Arab hotheads brandishing placards demanding “To Hell with Democracy!” — flatly state that Muslims are culturally and religiously averse to democracy, and that forcing Western-style government upon resistant peoples is an ethnocentric, imperialistic abomination, reminiscent of Jesuit missionaries forcing Christianity upon Native Americans in an earlier age. These same masterminds are convinced that the millions of Muslims who emigrate to the West do so purely for economic reasons, and have no interest in freedom, democracy, or decadent Western culture.
And yet it is hard to argue with the facts. The myth of the democracy-hating Muslim is contradicted in poll after poll and more evidentially by the millions of Afghans, Palestinians, and Iraqis who voted in their countries’ recent democratic elections, despite very real threats of violence from terrorist/religious leaders like the late Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. You may recall that it was his holiness the Rev. Zarqawi who warned that support for democracy was “the very essence of heresy.”
By far the most thorough study of Muslim attitudes toward democracy appeared a few years ago in a grossly underreported Pew Global Attitudes Poll. That survey proved that by and large Muslims desire democracy where it doesn’t exist, and support it where it does, no matter what their preachers preach. (In a separate but similar poll by a University of Maryland researcher, few Muslims expressed admiration for their religious leaders.) In nearly all 17 Muslim populations surveyed in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, the poll found receptiveness to democracy. Overwhelmingly Muslims believed democracy could work in their country. What’s more, they clearly favored democratic government over “a leader with a strong hand.” In two Muslim countries — Lebanon and Turkey — the number preferring democracy over a strong leader is about the same as in the U.S.
Granted many Muslims believe religion should play a prominent role in politics, but so do many Americans. In fact, more Turks (73 percent) and Lebanese (56 percent) than Americans (55 percent) say politics and religion should be kept separate.
SO WHY THEN THE PERSISTENCE of this anti-democracy myth? Part of the blame must lie with the media, which often equate anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism with a hatred of democracy, and tend to give unequal time to Western-hating Muslim leaders. Not surprisingly, Muslim religious leaders do hate democracy, the same as all tyrants and dictators oppose anything that takes power from them and gives it to the masses. It should not be assumed that the plain people feel the same.
In Iraq and Afghanistan it is the dregs of the former regimes — the Sunni Baathists and the Taliban — and not your average citizen who are resorting to their old tricks of terror and murder to prevent the democratic process from working effectively. And these terrorists have no better allies than the liberals and anti-war activists of the West who would have the coalition troops pack up and leave the field to the anti-democratic forces.
Democracy isn’t some kind of magic bullet, a handy solution to every conflict. Hamas was democratically elected. So were representatives from Hezbollah. For that matter so were the Nazis. Today a populist thug and his rabble in Mexico refuse to abide by that country’s democratic election results. And yet to paraphrase Winston Churchill, there is as yet no better alternative to democracy.
The Bush Doctrine may be largely discredited, but W. had the right idea nonetheless. Now to find a way to make it work.
Christopher Orlet is a frequent contributor and runs the Existential Journalist.