February 5, 2004 | Broadcast

Morning Edition

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I’m Bob Edwards.

The United States and the United Nations are hammering out plans to transfer sovereignty of Iraq to Iraqis, possibly by the end of June. With no weapons of mass destruction discovered, the White House is emphasizing other positive fallout from the war–that the US has freed Iraq from a brutal dictator and is helping build democracy there. But Americans often have argued about when and how to export democracy to other countries. Today MORNING EDITION offers an excerpt of a debate on exporting democracy, first broadcast on the public radio program “Justice Talking.” NPR’s Margot Adler was the moderator.

MARGOT ADLER reporting:

Our two debaters come from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Clifford May is president of the Foundation for The Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism created after 9/11. He was formerly communications director for the Republican National Committee. Martin Halperin is director of Open Society Institute-DC. He served in the Clinton, Nixon and Johnson administrations.

The two debaters surprised us by agreeing on a number of points, including this one: that in many cases, the US has the obligation to intervene against a dictatorial government in order to promote democracy. But Halperin and May’s differences illuminate important divisions in our country and its leadership. Early in the debate, I played this clip of audiotape, Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in the 1960s.

(Soundbite of audiotape)

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr.: Don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be, a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, ‘You’re too arrogant. And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power.’

ADLER: Since its founding, America has been steeped in the view that it’s an exceptional nation, the city on the hill, a beacon for the world. Do you believe this or, as King says, is it the height of arrogance? Mort.

Mr. MORTON HALPERIN (Director, Open Society Institute-DC): Well, the American people clearly don’t believe it. They elected a president who promised them a humble foreign policy, so it’s clear that they wanted something else. I actually do believe it. I don’t believe that we know that it comes from God. I don’t know how you know that, but…

ADLER: But you believe there’s a fundamentally American idea that the world…

Mr. HALPERIN: No. I believe that there is a fundamentally universal idea that we, in body, certainly better than any other country that’s had anywhere near the power that we have, and I think the American people do support and would support a foreign policy of helping other countries to come to their own form of democracy.

ADLER: Cliff.

Mr. CLIFFORD MAY (President, The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies): We should be humble about attempting to impose our values on other peoples. But basic notions of human rights and freedoms and democracy are important. We should help other countries to enjoy those out of enlightened self-interest, because these democratic societies will not be the swamps that breed the kind of terrorism with which we and other free nations are plagued today.

ADLER: Mort, I have a question that I admit may be a little unfair. George Soros is one of the world’s biggest promoters of democracy and he’s your boss, right?

Mr. HALPERIN: Oh, it’s true.

ADLER: And he said that he believes that in an open society, people must arrive at their own answers and that nothing is predetermined. And he writes that the Bush administration’s policy of pre-emptive action and military supremacy contradicts this view of an open society. Do you agree with your boss about this?

Mr. HALPERIN: I do agree with him about it.

Mr. MAY: Well…

Mr. HALPERIN: He is not saying that we should never use military force. He was, in fact, more supportive of using military force in Iraq than I think probably many people were. What he’s saying is that the doctrine as it was presented and as it was implemented assumed a certainty about what was going on and a self-confidence that we have no right to have, given our track record in the past. And we have to do these things with the rest of the world through institutions, through the United Nations, and leading the United Nations through the Security Council. It’s what we did and what the Bush administration did in Afghanistan. We did the same thing in Timor. We did the same thing in Bosnia.

Mr. MAY: Let me pick up on a point of disagreement.

ADLER: Clifford May.

Mr. MAY: That is to say the United Nations is an organization comprised of democratic states and dictatorships. Organizationally, the United Nations does not prefer one over the other. That’s why you can have Libya as the head of the Human Rights Commission, a joke. To say we are going to turn democracy building, nation building, state building over to the United Nations is saying, ‘Not only can’t we do it, we don’t want to do it and we don’t want it done.’

Mr. HALPERIN: Well, first of all, I was talking about the Security Council, which is the institution that has the legal authority to give legitimacy to these enterprises.

Mr. MAY: Now, look, let me tell you, the French–and I think a lot of people in our State Department feel the same way–do not believe–I have to–I’m going to say this straight out. They don’t want freedom and democracy for Iraq. They want stability for Iraq. You see, it’s a much less ambitious thing. If all you want is stability, any dictator can do it. For a long time, there were a lot of presidents who said, ‘Let’s put a dictator in there who will nonetheless be our dictator or at least be sympathetic to our policies.’ I would argue with you that that approach is at best outdated and at worst wrong and always was wrong. Let’s help the people, particularly of a place like Iraq, and to the extent we’ve been responsible for propping Saddam Hussein up, he’s our Frankenstein monster and we had a responsibility to get rid of him and free the Iraqi people from him.

ADLER: Mort.

Mr. HALPERIN: But I think this creates a real dilemma for us. Suppose we do impose a democratic constitution on Iraq, or they develop a democratic constitution, which presumably, like all constitutions, will provide for amendment. We then have a free and fair election in Iraq. A government is elected which proposes, through constitutional means, an amendment that says women shall not have the right to vote…

Mr. MAY: Women…

Mr. HALPERIN: …and they adopt it by the constitutional means. Do we then send the Army back in and say, ‘No, you can’t do that’?

Mr. MAY: A, it’s a risk we take and, B, if women can vote for not voting, I don’t think it’s very likely.

ADLER: Cliff, political scientist Benjamin Barber argues that instead of democracy, the US is spreading a McWorld, putting MTV, McDonald’s, Macintoshes in every outpost it can. Isn’t there a tendency to confuse democracy with consumer capitalism and isn’t it consumerism that is winning over cultures, not democracy?

Mr. MAY: No. Free enterprise means free choices. It means consumers take their dollars and they vote every day for the products and services they want. That’s part of freedom.

ADLER: Do you agree with that, Mort?

Mr. HALPERIN: Yeah, I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALPERIN: We should be in the business, much more in the business of promoting democracy in areas we haven’t talked about. I think, for example, we should be reforming the UN and we ought to be working to make it into a democratic body that promotes democracy. We should turn the IMF and the World Bank from institutions that pretend not to care about democracy into institutions that are told that they should be promoting democracy. But I think we need to remember that we do not have all the answers, and I think in Iraq, we have to find a form of legitimacy that the Iraqi people can accept and the international community would accept, but then we have to be prepared to stay for a very long time. And I fear that the debate now is between people who want to get out much too quickly and people who want to get out too quickly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADLER: Cliff.

Mr. MAY: I’m not making the case that we’re doing things perfectly in Iraq by any means. Nonetheless, what you have right now is Iraqis choosing first of all their local city council, their local mayor, getting used to the idea that you can have a town meeting and not have a script for it, you can have a town meeting and no one knows what’s going to come up or how it’ll come out. That’s how people begin to learn democratic habits. Keep in mind what Churchill said about democracy, which I’m sure you know but in case some of the listeners don’t, it’s worth repeating, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government ever devised, except for all the other alternatives that have occasionally been tried.’

ADLER: Clifford May, president of the Foundation for The Defense of Democracies, and Mort Halperin, director of Open Society Institute-DC. Our “Justice Talking” debate took place at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia last fall and was sponsored by The Annenberg Public Policy Center. I’m Margot Adler, NPR News.

EDWARDS: The entire debate on exporting democracy is at npr.org.

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