Sunday, 14 June 2009

Imposing democracy

I fell into an argument with friends and acquaintances on Iraq and Afghanistan this afternoon. The word which lit the fuse was democracy. As in, it’s wrong to ‘impose democracy’. This phrase seems obviously nonsense to me. On whom is democracy being imposed? The people who voted in Iraq’s January 2005 legislative and governorate elections? Iraq’s October 2005 constitutional referendum? Iraq’s December 2005 legislative election? Iraq’s January 2009 governorate elections? Or perhaps has it been imposed on the people who voted in Afghanistan’s 2004 presidential election? Or Afghanistan’s 2005 parliamentary election?

Those voters were not forced to vote. They voted despite genuine threats of attacks at polling stations. Democracy was not imposed upon them, it was claimed by them in defiance of deadly terrorists.

The only people on whom democracy is imposed are the murdering thugs who would prefer to rule by force.

My apologies to anyone who finds this question a bit stale. It’s on such a kindergarten level I was surprised to still be faced with it. There are much more complicated and challenging issues in both wars. And yet, this kindergarten concept of ‘imposing democracy’ turned up in the news very recently, out of the mouth of one famed for his mastery of rhetoric. In his Cairo speech President Obama said, explicitly in reference to Iraq, “let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed on one nation by any other.” Which is a red herring. Iraq’s system of government was approved in a referendum by 79% of voters on a 63% turnout, in a ballot supervised by the UN. It was the choice of the Iraqi nation.

There is reason to welcome Obama’s statement, however, because it’s not that long ago that his proposals on Iraq sounded an awful lot like a plan to, erm, impose a different system of government.
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Related reading: Peter Baker on Obama and democracy, NYT June 8th, a sequel to his February 22nd piece on the same subject. He provides the curious spectacle of an administration anxious that the notion of democracy promotion will associate them with the Bush presidency. I don’t get it. Obama seems globally to be the most popular American president in history. Democracy is an idea millenia older than Bush, an idea that gives courage to millions. What is the White House worried about?

Democracy is central to Obama’s appeal. He should embrace it unambiguously. What I liked about The New Yorker’s inauguration cover by Drew Friedman was that it placed Obama’s election as part of the continuity of America’s unfinished revolution. Unfinished, because democracy means a never-ending revolution, the strongest political system yet known in this universe of constant change.

1 comment:

Roland Dodds said...

Well said Kellie. I find the whole argument against “imposing” democracy to be wrong on two counts. One that you mentioned (the fact that these elections conducted by an overwhelming number of those nation’s citizens, many of which did so at their own risk). The other point that is often made, that using force to create a situation and environment that allows for democracy to occur is not possible, is obviously and verifiably incorrect. Germany, Japan, Korea... all states that verifiably developed democracy after a forceful removal of totalitarian states in those nations.