Social Studies May 2005

Democracy Everywhere? What a Nutty Idea.

A preview of Washington's next scandal: the Bush administration's scheme to impose democracy on the world.
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George W. Bush's second inaugural address, with its sweeping rhetoric about the spread of freedom abroad and at home, sparked strong but varied reactions. Most of the president's conservative supporters ranked it with the greatest inaugural speeches.... The president's liberal critics were less laudatory.

—William A. Galston

Washington Monthly, April 2005

July 7, 2005 (Associated Press)—Already fighting to keep its Social Security initiative afloat, the Bush administration struggled for a second day yesterday to rebut Democrats' charges that it is scheming to bring democracy to the whole world.

"We're very enthusiastic about democracy as a general proposition, which the president has made clear," White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters in a day dominated by partisan cross fire. "But the idea that this administration is harboring some sort of plan or intention to make the whole world democratic is just plainly not the case."

Other administration officials, speaking off the record, were more blunt. "The claim that this administration is democracy-mongering in some wild way shows that the other side is desperate and will reach for any smear, however scurrilous," said a senior White House aide.

To buttress their case, Republicans pointed to the administration's close ties to a host of unsavory authoritarian regimes, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan. "Look," said a senior State Department official, "we would hardly be propping up the likes of Hosni Mubarak if we were some gang of good-government zealots."

Democrats, however, redoubled their criticism, apparently believing that a recently leaked National Security Council memorandum—first reported by The New York Times on July 5—gave them fresh ammunition. "The NSC papers leave no room for doubt," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "This administration will stop at nothing in its ruthless quest to impose democracy on the world."

According to the NSC memo, the administration believes that 90 percent of the world's population should be living under democratic governments by 2015, a goal it claimed was achievable if China and the Arab world were democratized. More controversially, the document also called for the use of "a wide variety of methods, public and covert," to attain that goal.

"Democracy is a great thing," said Kennedy. "But it is no substitute for stability in a volatile world, and no justification for imperial overstretch and presidential hubris. That was what my brother had in mind when he said we shall pay any reasonable price and bear any sustainable burden to assure the success of liberty."

Liberal talk radio was aflame over the NSC document, with both listeners calling in to express outrage. "It's just nutty," said one caller, identifying herself as Edna of Santa Barbara. "This administration and their Religious Right puppet-masters, really all they want is to impose their own values on everybody."

September 17, 2005 (AP)—With agreement tantalizingly close, congressional negotiations stalled yesterday over controversial pro-democracy legislation.

"We thought we just about had a deal," a tired Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., told reporters. Lugar, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he would abort the negotiations if Democrats did not retract their filibuster threats.

Democrats, however, accused Republicans of grandstanding and said that Lugar was bluffing. "If the majority was serious about getting this done instead of scoring points, we'd have had a deal last week," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the committee's ranking Democrat. "The numbers are basically settled, and both sides know it."

In comments at a public appearance with Attorney General Tom DeLay, President Bush reiterated his call for prompt passage of the legislation. "The world needs the right dose of democracy, and this bill would provide it," he said.

The Democracy in Moderation Act, as the legislation is called, is no stranger to controversy. The Bush administration, battered by accusations that it is seeking political freedom and democratic government for the entire world, argued initially that its aim of bringing 90 percent of the world's population under democratic rule by 2015 was "a goal, not a quota or timetable."

When that assurance failed to calm public and congressional alarm, the White House called for legislation formally enshrining 90 percent democracy as the maximum the administration would support without returning to Congress for further authorization. The administration insisted that its 90 percent democracy target, like its tax-cut target four years earlier, was "precisely the right amount."

"You do need more democracy," said one official in July. "But not too much, too fast. We think our figure gets the balance right."

In Congress, however, support soon faltered, with Democrats calling the president's goal "extreme and dangerous," and many Senate Republicans expressing unease. "A lot of our guys aren't sure the world is ready for so much freedom," one Senate GOP leadership aide said. "And holding elections is expensive. Who would print all the ballots?"

Angered by what they denounced as a "new colonialism," a variety of liberal organizations joined with traditional Republican isolationists to protest the Bush initiative. Groups such as Students Against Idealism and Democracy Maybe! deluged the capital with telephone calls, and liberal icon Ralph Nader urged Americans to "stop Bush's corporate-sponsored democracy racket."

Wary of being seen as opposed to democracy, Democrats countered with their own "floors, not ceilings" bill, which stipulated that by 2025 no fewer than 60 percent of the world's people should live under democracy. "There's no democracy crisis," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said. "This bill will free more than half the world at a gradual, realistic pace."

Republicans rejected that target as too low and countered with a 75 percent floor on democracy worldwide by 2015, with waivers for China or Russia if the president certified in writing that either country was "kind of democratic." Democrats responded that they could accept 75 percent but as a ceiling rather than a floor, and no sooner than 2020. With their own caucus split and with Bush publicly holding out for a democracy cap set at 90 percent, Republicans halted the negotiations yesterday.

"We hope and expect that the Congress will soon go back to work," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters. "It's a sad day for the world when Congress can't answer the aspirations of millions by putting democracy on the not-too-fast track."

September 27, 2005 (AP)—Succumbing to presidential pressure, congressional negotiators compromised yesterday on a sweeping bill that aims to bring a substantial amount of democracy to a significant portion of the world.

From his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President Bush lauded the agreement as "an important achievement" and said he will sign the bill. "From the Boston Tea Party of our forefathers, through Presidents Wilson, Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan in the last century, and now once again for a new generation, America stands firm for freedom—not just for some, but for many."

In a rare display of bipartisanship, Democrats also praised the agreement. "The world's oppressed, the world's enslaved, need to know that we are on their side the majority of the time," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "The world's tyrants need to understand that America is their implacable occasional foe."

For over a week, the two parties had been at loggerheads over how far and how fast to spread democracy. Unable to agree on a precise goal, in a midnight compromise the two sides agreed to $355 billion in new highway money, to be financed with a $400 billion tax cut, plus encouragement of democracy at an "ambitious yet sustainable pace."

Maverick Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the agreement "a pork-barrel monstrosity that won't free a single human being," but his was a lonely voice.

October 5, 2005 (AP)—Foreign governments expressed anger yesterday over the freshly enacted "Bipartisan World Freedom and Improved Roadways Act," calling it unwarranted interference in their internal affairs.

Saudi Arabia, noting that 96 percent of Senate incumbents and 98 percent of House incumbents were re-elected in 2004, called for an international effort to democratize Congress. This, the Saudis estimated, would take "at least until 2040" to accomplish, but in order to democratize the U.S., said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, "we shall pay any price, bear any burden..."

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Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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