Implementing Bush’s Vision

The Washington Post

Extraordinary advances of democracy have occurred in recent months: elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, and Palestine; local elections in Saudi Arabia; Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon; the opening up of the presidential election in Egypt; and upheavals against entrenched authoritarians in Kyrgyzstan. This welcome trend was partly triggered by President Bush’s Middle East policy and accelerated by his second inaugural address, which elevated the progress of freedom in the world to the defining objective of U.S. foreign policy.

Pundits have interpreted these events as a victory of “idealists” over “realists” in the debate over conduct of American foreign policy. In fact, the United States is probably the only country in which “realist” can be used as a pejorative epithet. No serious realist should claim that power is its own justification. No idealist should imply that power is irrelevant to the spread of ideals. The real issue is to establish a sense of proportion between these two essential elements of policy. Overemphasis of either leads to stagnation or overextension.

Values are essential for defining objectives; strategy is what implements them by establishing priorities and defining timing.

Strategy must begin with the recognition that the freedom agenda does not make geopolitical analysis irrelevant. There are issues for which crusading strategies tend to be off the mark. The rise of China is, in essence, a geopolitical challenge, not a primarily ideological one.

U.S. relations with India are another case in point. During the Cold War, India saw no imperative to support the cause of democracy against communism. Its national interest was not involved in issues such as the freedom of Berlin. Now India is, in effect, a strategic partner, not because of compatible domestic structures but because of parallel security interests in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, and vis-à-vis radical Islam.

In its own terms, a clear-eyed commitment to the freedom agenda should keep these principles in mind:

• The process of democratization does not depend on a single decision and will not be completed in a single stroke. Elections, however desirable, are only the beginning of a long enterprise. The willingness to accept their outcomes is a more serious hurdle. The establishment of a system that enables the minority to become a majority is even more complex.

• Americans need to understand that successes do not end their engagement but most probably deepen it. For as we involve ourselves, we bear the responsibility even for results we did not anticipate. We must deal with those consequences regardless of our original intentions and not act as if our commitments are as changeable as opinion polls.

• Elections are not an inevitable guarantee of a democratic outcome. Radicals such as Hezbollah and Hamas seem to have learned the mechanics of democracy in order to undermine it and establish total control.

As the world’s dominating democratic power, we must relate values to power, institutional political change to geopolitical necessities. In countries where a vacuum must be filled and U.S. forces are present, the American capacity to affect events is considerable. Even then, however, it is not possible to automatically apply models created over centuries in the homogeneous societies of Europe and the United States to ethnically diverse and religiously divided societies in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. In multiethnic societies, majority rule implies permanent subjugation of the minority unless it is part of a strong federal structure and a system of checks and balances. To achieve this by negotiation between parties that consider dominance by the other groups a threat to their very survival is an extraordinarily elusive undertaking. It will, however, determine the degree to which democratic goals in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan can be achieved.

Lebanon illustrates another aspect of these considerations. The upheaval that expelled Syrian forces is a testimony to the growth of popular consciousness but also to the changed strategic environment. Syria, too weak to resist international pressures, may calculate that withdrawal eventually will return the situation to the chaos that triggered Syrian intervention in the first place.

Three times since 1958 – the United States that year, Syria in 1976 and Israel in 1981 – foreign intervention held the ring in Lebanon to prevent collapse into violence and to arbitrate among the Christian, Sunni, Shiite and Druze groups that constitute the Lebanese body politic. The internal conflict is made all the sharper because the established constitutional arrangement no longer reflects the actual demographic balance.

At this point, the driving force in Lebanon is less democratic than populist; it is a contest by which the factions organize competitive demonstrations partially designed to overawe their opponents. The test will be whether the United States and the international community are able to bring about an agreed political framework and whether they can mobilize an international presence to guarantee that the conflicting passions do not once again erupt into violence, and that outside adventures are discouraged.

In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the vacuum is potential, not actual. A wise policy will navigate between efforts to overcome stagnation and pressures that will dissolve the existing political framework into a contest of radical factions or the victory of one of them. The fundamentalist victory in the local elections in Saudi Arabia illustrates this danger. Policies erring in either direction could turn these countries into the Achilles’ heel of the entire Middle East policy. The United States has made clear its conviction that a democratic evolution reflecting popular aspirations is a long-term necessity. But it has not yet defined what it means either by that phrase or an appropriate evolutionary process.

The revolution in Iran teaches the lesson of the risks of procrastination in the 1960s and 1970s before the fundamentalist upheaval, but also of the perils of pressures in the Carter administration that resulted in a system far more autocratic than the shah’s. Major strategic issues are at stake in a sensitive handling of these concerns, including the viability of Palestinian negotiation.

Finally, there is the challenge of how to deal with societies such as China and Russia, which so far have relied on the Western political tradition only to a small degree, if at all, in their transition to the globalized world. They have used their own histories or national senses of identity as guides. To what extent and by what means can the United States influence this process? And in what direction? What level of understanding of domestic context, influenced by centuries of history, is necessary to produce confidence in desired outcomes? What price in medium-term strategic interests are we prepared to pay?

No single nation is strong enough or wise enough to involve itself in every political evolution around the world simultaneously. Priorities based on the national interest are imperative. Otherwise, psychological exhaustion and physical overextension are a real possibility, along with a global coalition of the resentful and nationalistic resisting perceived American hegemony.

President Bush has put forward a dramatic vision. The national debate now needs to focus on the concrete circumstances to which it must be applied. The nongovernmental groups should participate in this process.

Having made their point about the importance of the subject, they should now contribute to the development of a responsible substance. A strategy to implement the vision of the freedom agenda needs consensus-building, both domestically and internationally. That will be the test as to whether we are seizing the opportunity for systemic change or participating in an episode.

The writer, a former secretary of state, is chairman of Kissinger Associates.