The spread of democracy has become the central tenet in the Bush administration's foreign policy. But what exactly makes a country democratic?
About three years ago, President Bush declared that it is "the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions, in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
Thus began a U.S. experiment promoting democracy, mainly in the Middle East. One key part of that experiment was the holding of free elections, which, at the behest of Washington, have since taken place in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
Beyond Free Elections
Yet according to Islamic scholar Khaled Abu el Fadl, "the vast majority of Muslims don't buy into the claim that we are furthering democracy."
Why? Consider the Palestinian parliamentary elections last January. They were free, fair, open and by all accounts, democratic. But they were won by the militant Islamist group Hamas, which the U.S. State Department considers a terrorist organization. Under U.S. diplomatic protocol, contact with Hamas is banned.
Francois Meltzer, a professor of religion and literature at the University of Chicago, says that experience left Palestinians with the impression that America supports free elections only so long as the voters choose candidates that receive the U.S. stamp of approval.
"If the definition of democracy is free elections and free choice," Meltzer says, "then there's a problem with deciding that you then judge that choice, and make a decision as to whether or not it's OK."
In the Middle East today, the choice for voters is largely between the entrenched nationalists and the dissident Islamists. Johns Hopkins University professor Francis Fukuyama says that this raises a dilemma for democracy in the Mideast.
"[Islamists are] willing to stand for elections, and they win elections," Fukuyama says. "But they have a rather intolerant interpretation of Islam that doesn't allow for political pluralism, and doesn't get at the liberal part of liberal democracy."
Historian Victor Davis Hanson says that because of this conundrum, it is a mistake to think of spreading democracy solely in terms of free elections.
"Do you encourage democracy, even though an illiberal party may take power and have one vote, one time?" Hanson asks rhetorically.
Building a Culture of Democracy
Former House Speaker Newt Ginrich says that in its efforts to promote democracy, the Bush administration has failed to explain the full meaning of democracy, beyond free elections.
"The rule of law, independent judges, the right of free speech, the ability to fire those to whom you loan power and private property -- unless you have all five of those in place, you don't have a viable democracy," Gingrich says.
Interestingly, nearly every country in the world refers to itself as a democracy, including Cuba, Iran and even North Korea, which is officially named the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In fact, only five countries in the world say they are not democratic. The overwhelming majority of nations hold some form of democratic elections.
But philosopher Richard John Neuhaus argues that, before democracy can become part of a country's political system, it has to become engrained in its culture -- a culture "in which people not only tolerate but see morally -- and even religiously -- the value and the imperative of living together in a political structure that is not indifferent to differences."
Democracy or Stability?
Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told an audience in Cairo that for 60 years, "the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy" in the Middle East.
The speech appeared to be a kind of acknowledgement of past American sins. The United States did indeed sponsor some nasty regimes, and even a few coup d'etats. But retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich says that the aim of U.S. policy has not changed radically.
"U.S. foreign policy supports the spread of democracy to the extent -- and only to the extent -- that the spread of democracy is supportive of other U.S. interests," Bacevich says.
Those U.S. interests, he says, include trade agreements and strategic alliances, but also the very real desire for stability.
Former House Speaker Gingrich argues that spreading democracy helps the United States diffuse some of the negative feelings about America in the Muslim world.
"The anger that gets directed at us is actually anger diverted from dictatorships," Gingrich says. "Open societies under the rule of law, where people are prosperous, are less likely to have terrorism than places which have greater tension and much greater pressure."
The challenge, of course, is figuring out how to make it work. There is no democracy template. But as Winston Churchill famously noted, democracy is the worst form of government -- except for all the others that have been tried.