What’s So Good About Democracy?

What’s So Good About Democracy?

Is democracy the right thing for every country in the world? Is America the best example of this? Should we make it one of our policy goals to implement democracy in other countries?

Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey doesn’t like America’s example of democracy, and he says so at length at The Mechanics of Democracy (Newsweek on MSNBC). He cites the problems in the 2000 presidential election, particularly here in Florida as a good reason not to be smug about American democracy. Now while I think that the election in Florida was quite comical, and I also think that the US Supreme Court accepted a case they had no business accepting, I nonetheless think 2000 was a fine year for democracy in America.

Why? For the simple reason that we settled the election through a legal process, however messy it may have been. We had no violence, no revolution, and though many people’s feathers were ruffled, we went back to governing the nation afterward. We can complain about the courts, but in the final analysis, the Supreme Court’s opinion of what is its business is what holds, so I can think the case was none of their business all I want, and it is quite meaningless. The same thing applies to issues of popular vote and the electoral college. We have a system that prescribes that electors are chosen at the general election, and that those electors then choose the president and vice-president. The person who wins that vote in the electoral college is the president, all whining and complaining about popular votes aside. If we want a tidier end result, somebody needs to get out there and win by a more substantial margin.

If you haven’t gotten my drift by now, let me tell you. It’s not that I approve of the results of all these elections. It is that I don’t think democracy as such is an ultimate value. My concern is for a constitutional government that has reasonable rules of succession, and that can maintain the general support of the people for the system, even when it does not do so for the particular people.

Let’s look at the situation in Florida in 2000. The problem for Republicans was that the Florida Supreme Court was dominated by Democratic appointees. The problem for Democrats was that the U. S. Supreme Court was dominated by Republican appointees. By philosophy, Republicans should have left the issue in the state courts, but that was a loosing proposition for them. Democrats would normally have been more likely to see a federal issue, especially if minority voters were being under-represented, but for them, the Florida Supreme Court was the best option. Politics being what it is, it was too much to expect either party to argue on principle that the issue should be decided by a court that was likely to rule (or had already ruled) against them. Any Republican who had followed principle on this one would have had my undying admiration, but considering I have a record of voting for the loser in election after election, that might not be a great incentive!

Despite all this, the system worked, in my view, because we got a government peacefully, and were able to revisit the situation four years later. Democrats would do well to ask not why they keep getting close elections stolen, but rather why they have been unable to win a clearer margin of victory against a Republican candidate who’s popularity has varied from marginal to dismal. Is it perhaps because Democrats haven’t put up a sufficiently credible candidate?

But then we start to look at the rest of the world. While I wouldn’t have a problem with them following our example, as messy and just plain human as it is, I wonder if they really should do so. I was in the U. S. Air Force during operation Just Cause, sometimes called “Just ‘Cuz We Wanted To” by the less reverent among us. In that case, the United States took the position that it had the right to indict and then arrest the president of a foreign country, something we couldn’t do to our own president, and then we went to war to demonstrate that. I visited Panama after the invasion under the new government. Prior to the invasion one could walk the streets of Panama City at night in relative safety. Afterwards, crime was rampant, and visiting military personnel were required to stay inside at night, and it was recommeded behavior for visitors generally. Businesses normally had armed private security guards.

Panama is better off today than it was just after the invasion, but I have to wonder where it would be as a country if we had not interfered? People have questioned George Bush’s doctrine of a preemptive war, but what was the justification for the invasion of Panama?

But let’s look at another angle. Should we have creating a government that we like as a war aim in a foreign country. Let’s assume for a moment that there was justification for invading Iraq and removing the regime of Saddam Hussein. Given such a justification, is it either good or practical to have as a war aim the creation of a government that suits a list of American requirements? I must question whether it’s good, because I can’t see how we have the right to determine just what type of a government another country should have. I question whether it’s practical simply because we are unlikely to make a workable set of requirements that combine our ideals with that country’s culture.

We have a contradictory set of aims in our foreign policy. We want certain other countries to be democratic. We want them to elect “good” governments by our standards, and we want them to provide adequate security to prevent terrorism against our interests based in their territory. We could accomplish the latter two–a government we approve of, and a level of security–by becoming an occupying power, and investing the effort, determination, and ruthlessness required of that process. But of course that would not be democracy. The Romans used that type of method in setting up client states. “He’s your king, but we have to approve.”

I think war is sometimes necessary. But a war that pursues impossibly large or contradictory goals, and pursues those goals with insufficient force is simply a way to kill people.

We need to make a decision as a nation. Is it our responsibility to create democracy around the world? If so, we need to foster democracy, and that will inevitably mean that governments will come to power that we don’t like. Some of those governments will be too weak to deal with terrorism and criminal activities. Others, like Hamas, may be terrorist oriented themselves. But if democracy is our goal, then we need to live with that. If security is our goal, then our behavior should be different. Support of somewhat repressive regimes, assuming they’re effective, might be a better way to accomplish this goal in many cases. But harassing friendly governments (in this definition) about their human rights record, while rejoicing in the benefits of the security that provides, is hypocritical, and I suspect counterproductive in the long run. On the other hand we could only take military action when we have a limited security goal that does not involve taking responsibility for the government of the country in the process.

The Democrats are right, I think, in asking for an exit strategy from Iraq. But they are wrong on making it time based. We should look at where we are now, create a set of conditions to fulfill, and exit when those conditions have been fulfilled. Those conditions should not include making certain the new government of Iraq is going to succeed, or that it will be a completely friendly one. Those latter two are impossible goals unless we intend to become an occupying power for the long term.

I don’t think the United States would make a good occupying power. At least I hope not.

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