March 3, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

Building Democracies: Tough Work If You Can Get It

Virtually everyone reading this newspaper can drive a car. But how many of you could build a car?

The same is true of democracy. Most people raised in a democratic society know how to operate in that environment – they know they have rights and they know there are rules about how far those rights extend.

For example, freedom of speech is guaranteed in America. But go to a candidate's rally and try to take over the podium to make a free speech and the cops will drag you away. By the same token, they probably won't drag you away to the gallows as occasionally happens in other parts of the world.

To those accustomed to democratic habits and practices, this makes sense. To Iraqis and Haitians for example – such distinctions may seem perplexing.

For this and additional reasons, “nation-building” is an arduous task. Actually, even the term is misleading. Nations are “historically developed communities” with their own territory, economy, culture and common language. That's not something you send in the Marines or even the Army Corps of Engineers to build.

What you can help build is a state, a government organized around democratic principles.

Literally, democracy means “rule by the people” but in modern times it implies a form of government in which the people rule indirectly by electing representatives to manage affairs of state for them.

The notion that democracy means majority rule is mistaken. Majority rule without minority rights is not democratic – it's majoritarian, a variety of totalitarianism. If majority rule alone defined democracy, a slave state could call itself democratic – so long as 51% of the electorate had voted to enslave the remaining 49%, what would be the problem?

So democracy implies freedom. And freedom requires minority rights, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press, religious freedom, rights for women and tolerance of an organized opposition. Absent such freedoms, elections alone will not bring about a transition to democracy.

Recall this example: In the early 1930s, Adolf Hitler waged a serious election campaign. His goal was not just to win office but also to obtain sufficient power to dismantle German democracy. At a fund-raiser with leading industrialists, he stated flatly: “We are about to hold the last election.”

Similarly, the esteemed scholar Bernard Lewis has pointed out that when proponents of democracy compete with radical Islamists, “the democrats are of course at a disadvantage. Their ideology requires them, even when in power, to give freedom and rights to the Islamist opposition. The Islamists, when in power, are under no such obligation. On the contrary, their principles require them to suppress what they see as impious and subversive activities.”

In other words, democracy is more than one man, one vote, one time. Those attempting to build democracies – Ambassador Paul Bremer leaps to mind — must recognize that some of the people most eager to participate in elections may be enemies of democracy. They should be dealt with accordingly.

The domestic politics of democracy-building are curious. Conservatives and libertarians have generally been dubious about such missions. So-called neo-conservatives, however, have dissented from their brethren on the right. President Bush moved from the conservative to the neo-con position after 9/11 — after the consequences of indulging anti-Western, terrorist-sponsoring dictatorships became apparent to him.

Those on the left have tended to be of at least two minds – favoring nation-building efforts in Haiti, Kosovo and Bosnia during the Clinton years, for instance, but disdainful of such efforts in Iraq now.

The far left regards Bush's “forward strategy of freedom” in the Middle East as imperialist. More moderate voices on the left argue for letting the UN take the lead in democracy-building – ignoring the fact that the UN includes both dictatorships and democracies, and has no particularly preference for one form of government or the other.

The fashionable view in Europe – the view heard often on the BBC, for example – is that exporting democracy means imposing Western or even American values. That pre-supposes that most Arabs and Muslims would rather have no say as to who governs them and that they view even basic freedoms as outlandish.

Such elitist premises deserve further examination, not least in light of the recent adoption of an interim constitution by Iraq's Governing Council, a body that includes Sunni, Shia and Kurdish leaders. The document includes not only basic rights but also such relatively sophisticated ideas as habeas corpus and civilian control of the military.

“It's a historic document,” said Faisal Istrabadi, one of the lead drafters. “In the best tradition of democracies – granted we are an aspiring democracy – we all compromised.”

Entifadh Qanbar, one of Saddam Hussein's military commanders until 1987 when he was arrested and then subsequently escaped, added: “It required a lot of effort and hard work.”

Hard work is what it takes to build a democratic society. Other forms of government are easier. “Democracies are more difficult to create,” Bernard Lewis has written. “They are also more difficult to destroy.”


Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.