Of the many deaths already reaped by the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict, perhaps the quietest befell the hopeful policy outlook expressed in President Bush's second inaugural address.
"It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture," the president said. "... And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own." This multicultural truism is no longer reassuring.
Democracy is a powerful force that often is an engine for liberalism. As Natan Sharansky argues in The Case for Democracy, democratic societies are mostly peaceful and, in relation to other systems of government, have a good track record in avoiding wars of belligerence.
But pace Bush and Sharansky, democracy is not a universal solvent. Not all democracies are created equal. The customs and traditions of a society matter as much as its mode of government. It may be true that all people yearn for freedom, but history shows that some people yearn for the freedom to go forth and kill their neighbors.
Until a few weeks ago, Lebanon was regarded as one of the successes of the Bush Doctrine. Even in June 2005, there was trouble on the horizon, when the Lebanese held their free elections: The terrorist group Hezbollah won 14 seats in the 128-member parliament. More worrisome, Hezbollah fared best where turnout was highest.
At the time, all that could be hoped was that democracy might reshape Hezbollah. Now it is clear that, having hijacked Lebanon's foreign policy, Hezbollah has reshaped Lebanese democracy.
In an instructive essay in a recent New Republic, Annia Ciezadlo writes, "I live in a mixed Beirut neighborhood, not heavily Shia or even exclusively Muslim." But when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah spoke on TV announcing a Hezbollah attack on Israeli ships, she heard from all around the neighborhood "a surround-sound rustle of cheers and applause. Outside, caravans of cars rolled through the abandoned streets, and the drivers honked their horns." It will come as little surprise if Hezbollah gains strength in the next election.
Throughout the Middle East, elections have produced gains for Islamists, whose vision of democracy is at least a challenge for and perhaps antithetical to liberalism, tolerance or peace. In the Palestinian territories, the terrorist group Hamas swept to power last January. It, too, shows no signs of having been subdued by the burdens of democratic responsibility. In June 2005, 17 million Iranians cast their ballots for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man who has declared that "Israel must be wiped off the map."
Some Middle East elections have been less catastrophic, but no more hopeful. In February 2005, Saudi Arabia held mostly symbolic municipal elections. Nonetheless, as the Middle East Forum's Daniel Pipes observed, these "proved a boon for the Islamist candidates." In Egypt, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has been gaining support for decades. In Egypt's most recent (and highly imperfect) election, the brotherhood led all opposition groups, winning 88 parliamentary seats up from 17 seats in 2000. Should Hosni Mubarak lose power, Egypt could become an Islamist state.
Even Turkey and Kuwait, two of the great hopes for Middle Eastern liberalism and toleration, have had problems. Turkish voters elected Tayyip Erdogan's religious AKP Party in 2002, which might be the beginning of a shift away from secular society. And Kuwait's Islamists have been gaining in popularity since the end of the Gulf War. Kuwait's most recent election, on June 29, was the first in which women were allowed to vote; when the ballots were tallied, the Islamist party further increased its base in the National Assembly. As Abdul Razak Shuyji, one of Kuwait's Islamic fundamentalist leaders, boasted to the Washington Post three years ago, "Whenever there is true democracy, the Islamists will prevail."
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Even the Iraqi elections, which America gallantly labored to bring about, gave a 41 percent plurality to the Dawa Party and its partner, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Part of their platform is that all laws must flow from Islam. This theocratic precept has proved problematic in the past.
Writing in the National Interest (and in their book Electing to Fight), professors Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder note that "unfettered electoral politics often gives rise to nationalism and violence at home and abroad." There is a whole list of democracies that have turned to war: In 1995, Bosnia fought Serbia after nationalist parties won elections. Peru and Ecuador, two other young democracies, went to war in the Amazon.
In other words, democracy isn't bulletproof. Instances of disastrous democracy extend back to ancient times. Athens voted to attack Syracuse. It was a grinding, terrible defeat that spelled the beginning of the end for Athens in the Peloponnesian War. And, to leap to the 20th century, let's remember that the Germans voted the Nazi Party into power; we all know how that turned out. (I'm drawing no parallel between contemporary political movements and Nazism simply giving one more instance of free popular elections', meaning democracy, getting the wrong answer.)
Surveying the problems of democracy in the Middle East, Mansfield and Snyder speculate that "although democratization in the Islamic world might contribute to peace in the very long run, Islamic public opinion in the short run is generally hostile to the United States, ambivalent about terrorism and unwilling to renounce the use of force to regain disputed territories... . Per capita incomes, literacy rates and citizen skills in most Muslim Middle Eastern states are below the levels normally needed to sustain democracy."
Certainly, the benefits of democracy should not be minimized. Witness the transformation of Eastern Europe and much of South and Central America. But after Hamas came to power, President Bush quipped that "when you give people the vote, you give people a chance to express themselves at the polls and if they're unhappy with the status quo, they'll let you know. That's the great thing about democracy, it provides a look into society."
The experience of the last few weeks suggests that the president may be more right than he knows.