WASHINGTON - Democracy is a great idea. Or maybe not.
The early returns are in on the Bush administration’s strategy of trying to democratize the Middle East and elsewhere.
The news isn’t as the president and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would have hoped.
All around the world, countries and peoples — Iran, Lebanon, the Palestinians, Venezuela, Bolivia — keep having elections and keep electing candidates committed to terrorism or virulent anti-Americanism.
The victory of Hamas, a group listed on the State Department’s terrorist roster, in last month’s Palestinian balloting is only the most recent in a run of elections leading to bad outcomes.
“Bad” from the point of view of those opposed to terrorism and anti-Americanism; “good,” of course, from the point of view of Hamas.
On Wednesday, several members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee demanded that Rice explain whether her strategy is working in the interests of America. Are the elections making the world safe for democracy and for America?
Rice urges senators to not despair
Don’t despair, Rice told the committee, even as she used euphemistic language to admit that some of the “outcomes are not perfect” in the elections in Palestine and elsewhere.
But several senators seemed to have lost faith, if they ever had any, in Rice and even in the power of elections to lead to good outcomes, at least while Bush is in the White House.
Rice threw down the gauntlet of democratization last summer in a speech in Cairo, capital of the regime of autocrat and U.S. ally, President Hosni Mubarak.
“For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East — and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people,” she declared.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Rice’s relentless antagonist in her previous appearances before the committee, cited the Hamas victory and that of Islamists in Iraq.
“Do you think that is working to the benefit of the United States?” Boxer asked Rice. “Not just in the Middle East, but also in places like Bolivia and Venezuela, do you agree that nations throughout the world are electing more negative candidates who run against America?”
Rice began her answer by saying, “If the option is to not hold elections, I think that would be a terrible --,” but Boxer interrupted and all at once the two women were snapping at each other with angry cross-talk.
'False stability' of dictatorships
Rice resorted to rhetoric she has used before about “the false stability” of dictatorships like that of Saddam Hussein which she argued was not preferable to “the admittedly difficult course the Iraqi people are now set on: to try to learn to deal with their differences by compromise and politics rather than by repression.”
“You are not answering the question!” said an exasperated Boxer.
Rice launched into another rebuttal. “The elections have made the world — in a transitional state — a better place,” Rice insisted. “There are times when elections turn out in ways that we would prefer they not: clearly the election of Hamas is a difficult moment… Now the international community will hold Hamas responsible for the policies it undertakes.”
She added that Hamas would have “one choice” — and she implied there’d be no other — to recognize the right of Israel to exist, to renounce violence and to negotiate a two-state solution.
The secretary also argued that the unwelcome election outcomes in the Middle East were “not a reason to despair.”
This didn’t mollify Boxer.
“The Pew (Center) has just done a poll: our standing in the world has never been lower," the California Democrat said. "If you think that’s good for America, that is fine, but I would say we need to do better… We need to have the people of these countries feeling good toward America and electing candidates that are feeling good about America.”
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R- Neb., a potential 2008 presidential contender, gave a wide-ranging four-minute statement, in which he voiced weary pessimism.
“I don’t see, Madame Secretary how things are getting better,” Hagel said. “I think things are getting worse; I think they are getting worse in Iraq; I think they are getting worse in Iran; I hope the Hamas development will start to develop in a different direction….”
Do we talk to the winners?
Hagel was followed by Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., who has often been a harsh critic of Bush’s foreign policy. Chafee said that after elections have been held in Iran, Bolivia, Venezuela and elsewhere and anti-American candidates won, the Bush administration simply does not talk to the winners.
If the Muslim Brotherhood wins elections in Egypt, will the Bush administration not talk to them either, Chafee wondered.
Rice contradicted him, saying a State Department official did attend the inauguration of new Bolivian president Evo Morales and that the American ambassador talks to the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez.
She declared that the Iranian election wasn’t a genuine election since “the Guardian Council (an unelected group of 12 theologians and jurists) decided who could run.”
Chafee lamented that the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections was “very, very disastrous” and implied that Bush could have averted it by more open support of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who also heads the Fatah party.
“I don’t think the United States is responsible for the election of Hamas,” Rice replied.
While neither Rice nor any of the senators seemed to come away from Wednesday’s sparring session fully satisfied or clearly victorious, the hearings showed that the committee is growing even more weary and wary of the Rice-Bush democracy crusade.
Implied in some of the senators’ questions was this idea: The logical outcome of that crusade might be a geo-strategic situation in which the people of the world, if free to elect who they want, choose anti-American leaders, and the United States -- beset by antagonists -- will be worse off than it was in the old days of authoritarian governments.
But Rice seemed undaunted in her enthusiasm for democracy as a subversive force against dangerous regimes: she used the opening comments of her testimony to request $75 million in funds to support democratic groups in Iran, groups which presumably would lead to the peaceful overthrow of the mullahs in Tehran.