[VIEWPOINT]Free elections are not enough

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[VIEWPOINT]Free elections are not enough

In his State of the Union address last week, President Bush once more re-emphasized the basic creed of his foreign policy: To spread democracy is to secure peace. “Our nation is committed to an historic long-term goal,” he said, “we seek the end of tyranny.” Why? Because, “the future security of America depends on it.” And he added: “Every step toward freedom in the world makes our country safer ― and so we will act boldly in freedom’s cause.”
Call this the “theory of democratic peace.” It goes back to the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant and the French sage Alexis de Tocqueville. Both maintain that democrats are inherently more peaceful than despots, and their modern-day disciples add: “No two democracies have ever gone to war against each other.”
This is historically true, though we should not forget that democracies like the United States, France, Britain or Israel have been just as aggressive as any tyranny in some of their wars. But in general, George W. Bush is right: The wider the zone of democracy, the wider the zone of peace. But should “democratic peace” be the main guideline of American and Western foreign policy? There are at least three problems with this approach.
One is Iraq. Saddam Hussein was undeniably one of the most bloody-minded tyrants in history, and so good riddance to him. But to impose democracy by war, as the last three years have shown, is not exactly peaceful. It is bloody and inconclusive, as phase two of the Iraq war continues to show. There are free elections in Iraq, but there is no peace and, indeed, the chance of a wider war in the region.
A second problem was demonstrated by the Palestinian elections ― the first free election in the Arab world that actually toppled a deeply entrenched regime, in this case, the power monopoly of Fatah, the movement founded by Yasser Arafat. Fatah has shown enormous incompetence and corruption, but under the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas it made two enormous steps toward peace. It had recognized Israel and opted for a two-state solution. But the new Hamas regime, though freely elected, believes in terror and the destruction of Israel. So free elections have made the Middle East worse off. The not-so-improbable threat is a civil war within Palestine, and an external war with Israel.
Third problem: Iran’s new president Ahmedinajad was also elected by the people, in a semi-free election. Under his leadership, the country has become far more aggressive and dangerous ― what with its accelerated drive for nuclear weapons and its pledge to “eradicate” Israel from the map.
So, as a principle the dream of the “democratic peace” is sound and noble; in practice, as these three examples show, the idea has turned into a nightmare.
Or put it this way: A good thing ― free elections ― has created monsters. These are regimes who believe neither in freedom nor in peace; they are in fact the greatest threats to peace in our world.
Should we therefore ditch the “democratic peace” theory? No, democracy is always better than despotism. But these recent events should give us pause and make us think more soberly about the many pre-conditions of a functioning democracy. Free elections, as the case of Palestine shows most dramatically, should not be the first, but the last step. Why did the Palestinians vote for Hamas? Because of rampant unemployment, corruption, injustice and misery. If we want the “right” forces to win, we have to start on this road much earlier. Instead of having given Yasser Arafat billions in aid as a blank check, we should have insisted that the money go into investments rather than to his cronies. We should have insisted on sound financial controls, on a free market, on a clean administration, on an independent judiciary and on decent social services.
If Fatah had provided all this, the people would not have flocked to Hamas. Had they had jobs, they would not seek salvation in suicide bombings. If they could have gotten justice in the courts, they would not have sought remedy from the hard men of Hamas with their AK-47 assault rifles. They would, in other words, have elected not the wrong, but the right parties.
So President Bush ought to reconsider. Democracy is a complicated game; it took the West about 200 years to make the leap from royal to popular rule. The first step should not be free elections, but legitimate institutions like courts, free markets and efficient administrations. More or less free media and parties are better than instant free elections. Look at the case of South Korea. First, there was economic growth and prosperity as well as a functioning bureaucracy. A stable democracy came almost automatically.
But if we press authoritarians like Egypt’s Mubarak or the Saudi princes to institute free elections tomorrow, while neglecting all those precious institutions that must precede democracy, we will not spread freedom, but open the gates for the enemies of freedom. And these are almost never friends of peace.

* The writer, the publisher-editor of Die Zeit in Germany, is currently teaching U.S. foreign policy at Stanford University, where he is also a fellow at the Hoover Institution.


by Josef Joffe

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