George W. Bush has committed much of the United States’ economic and military power to spreading democracy throughout the world. But the Bush Doctrine, as currently articulated, sets the bar pretty low for what constitutes democracy.
The Bush administration has not presented a coherent policy on countries such as Venezuela, Egypt, Russia and Zimbabwe — states that have some of the trappings of democracy without the inconvenient threat of the party in power losing control. And yes, Russia does belong on that list. Vladimir Putin’s systematic destruction of freedom of the press and his unfortunate tendency to jail political rivals who threaten his sovereignty has made Russia a democracy in name only. Why, then, is Bush so unabashedly friendly to Russia and so critical of Venezuela? The situations in the two countries are not dissimilar. In both cases, an elected leader has used underhanded, and dare we say undemocratic, means to manipulate the electorate and stay in power. Hugo Chavez basically buys votes. Putin jails anyone who would take votes away from him. The results, sadly, are quite similar: both countries hold elections, but the people’s voice doesn’t mean anything.
In praising Egypt’s recent “elections,” Bush provided a vote of confidence to pseudo-presidents everywhere, telling them that they can reign continuously for 20 years, as long as they pretend to let their people choose a leader every so often. But wait. Hasn’t Cuba been holding regular rigged elections since Fidel took power? And don’t we hate Cuba because Fidel Castro is a dictator? Why, then, is Hosni Mubarak’s victory in an unfair election a shining example of democracy, while Castro’s string of unfair wins is reprehensible? Bush doesn’t want to answer that question, thank you very much.
A small policy change in Iraq may thrust the nascent republic squarely into the middle of the pseudo vs. real democracy debate. The Shiites and Kurds recently changed the rules governing Iraq’s upcoming constitutional referendum, redefining the word “voter” in such a way that passage of the constitution would have been virtually guaranteed. Only pressure from the United Nations forced a reversal of the policy: the Bush administration had precious little to say about the change. The new rules threatened to make Iraq a pseudo-democracy in which the people vote but the outcome is a given. We know that Bush believes any election — even a flawed one — is a good thing for Iraq. But if the United States is in the business of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East and the world — a noble goal — then we need to define what exactly a democracy is.
According to current Bush Doctrine thinking, any country that holds elections, or pretends to hold elections, or plans to hold elections, is pretty much a democracy. Unless that country is named Venezuela. Or Iran. And the Bush Doctrine holds that dictatorships and genocide are bad. Unless, of course, we’re talking about Sudan or Uzbekistan. And because Saudi Arabia provides precious oil that America’s gas-guzzling consumers can’t live without, Bush can tolerate a little bit — or a lot — of monarchy there. What is a democracy? I’m not sure Bush has an answer to that question and, until he does, the Bush Doctrine is an inconsistent, costly and unfair foreign policy.
If the Bush Doctrine truly delivered principle to American foreign policy, the left would not be so vehemently opposed to it. Most liberals are neither callous nor isolationist, contrary to what Fox News tells you. But the Bush Doctrine is a giant leap forward for self-serving preemptive war and a step backward for principle. Any foreign policy that ignores genocide in the Sudan is not principled. Any foreign policy that praises Egyptian pseudo-democracy, supports Vladimir Putin’s “reforms” and allows protestors to be slaughtered in Uzbekistan is not principled.
Until we are prepared to apply our principles universally and fairly — and not at the barrel of a gun — our standing in the global community will suffer. George W. Bush can start by ending his praise of pseudo-democracy and working for the rest of his term to promote the real thing, in Iraq and elsewhere.
Xan White is a freshman in Calhoun College.