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On Point

Democratization is a Messy Business

by Austin Bay
July 2, 2003celebrate the birth of our own this Fourth of July weekend, it's worth remembering that a functioning democracy isn't simply a creature of law -- though the rule of democratic law is crucial. Creating and maintaining a democracy takes political maturity, for example, knowing the difference between personal liberty and selfish license. The difference can be a zone of shady gray, like the zone separating responsible police action and police repression. Tempering license and thwarting repression, while protecting liberty and promoting public security, require experience, judgment and a broad societal confidence.

But it takes time, hard work and sacrifice to gain that experience, sharpen that judgment and create that societal confidence.

Remember what the pundits called the "era of emerging democracies"? In the welcome meltdown of the Cold War, Eastern European dictatorships disappeared. In Asia, economic liberalism fed political liberalization. In Africa and South America, multi-party politics slowly supplanted one-party regimes.

It was a time of great expectations. Road maps to peace, justice and prosperity directed nations through John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and the Federalist Papers, with Adam Smith paying the transport costs. Why, after Desert Storm put Saddam in a U.N.-sanctioned box, even the Middle East's feudal autocracies showed signs of slouching toward democratic politics. Beltway Ph.D.s suggested history was over; democratic capitalism had won.

Then, something happened. Grim reality foiled great expectations. Eastern Europe discovered it was an ecological disaster as well as a social and economic mess. In the mid-1990s, a crisis of confidence even struck the plucky little Czech Republic, when economic reform didn't quickly produce capitalist bonanza. In Moscow, gangsters superseded the nomenklatura -- mafiya in lieu of Marx. Among the "Asian tigers," economic collapse -- due in large part to cronyism and corruption -- punctured hopes. Then Venezuela's Hugo Chavez -- a man who prefers paratroopers to parliaments -- resurrected jack-boot populism.

The year 2000 saw Yasser Arafat reject Ehud Barak's Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and opt for intifada.

It certainly appeared as if we'd entered a long era of democratic disappointment.

No doubt the "era of emergence" was oversold. In 1989, as Eastern Europe's dictatorships shriveled, China's government slaughtered 2,000 pro-democracy demonstrators in Tianamen Square -- a reminder of how quickly "emerging" can submerge in blood.

Saddam's broken statues, however, suggest that dictators are history's losers. The student-led political revolt inside the mullahs' Iran damns tyranny in religious robes.

Are people disappointed and complaining in Iraq? Of course -- but complaints are a mark of emerging confidence. It's a relief to complain about lack of electricity in Baghdad. It's simply a relief to complain. Nothing is more disappointing than tyranny, but you have to kick the tyrants out before that truth is taught again.

Still -- after the initial joyous shock of freedom -- the task of building a democracy is daunting.

Eastern Europeans say they knew Western democracy was no utopia. They didn't want a utopia -- they'd had it with Communism's utopian lies. However, rebuilding after the commissars' depredations is a multi-decade job. The Russians point out they aren't rebuilding, they're creating institutions that never existed. Russians fear resurgent fascism if democratic reform flounders.

Russian democracy is a work in progress. The truth is, America's democracy is a work-in-progress, a never-perfected experiment in self-government and self-administered justice. Arguably, a healthy democracy is always in a state of "emergence."

However, post 9-11 we are in another era. It isn't an era of democratic emergence, it's an era of democratic emergency. This is a time when democratic change must be encouraged, accelerated and directly aided. America can't sit and wait. Building democratic nations does build world peace. Fostering democracy in Iraq is a massive undertaking, one that takes times, money, sacrifice and confidence.

Eastern Europe's euphoria of 1989 faded. Fourteen years later, however, Poland is sending aid to Iraq.

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