An errant push for democracy first

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Opinion An errant push for democracy first

In Iraq, the U.S. has failed to heed Woodrow Wilson’s lesson of self-determination. Instead, dysfunctional borders merely cement foreign policy failures of the past .

USA TODAY - By Ralph Peters - April 18, 2007

Perhaps the worst of the countless mistakes the Bush administration has made in its attempt to open the Middle East to democracy was the rush to hold elections in Iraq before questions of ethnic and religious identity had been resolved.

We confuse the will of the people with democracy, but the latter is a tool, the first a passion. Democracy, as we know it, presumes a national community of interests. The lust for self-determination — as manifested by the various factions in artificial states such as Iraq — seeks the supremacy of an exclusive group.

Humans can't be chided into "just getting along."

Because the administration and its partners lacked the vision and fortitude to dismantle Iraq and draw more promising borders for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, the series of elections in which Iraqis braved terror to go to the polls had nothing to do with strengthening a nation and everything to do with empowering ethnic supremacists and religious demagogues.

Dismissed as a naive dreamer by the Washington establishment, President Woodrow Wilson got it right nine decades ago: Significant population groups who possess (or assert) a unique identity must be given a chance at statehood.

Not all new states will succeed and frontier revisions will never be perfectly just, but the violence-spawning conditions we face today — thanks to dysfunctional borders drawn for European advantage — will only worsen until men and women from Darfur through Kurdistan and Baluchistan to the Karenese in Burma enjoy the right to state, "I am X, this is my land, and this is my flag." We seek to reason with those possessed by a dream. It never works.

'Failed borders' 

For 500 years, Europe deformed the world. The irony of our times is that the United States, history's greatest force for freedom, spent the years since 1991 maintaining failed borders drawn by the ministers of kaisers, czars and kings. We have dug our trenches on the wrong side of history.

By attempting to leapfrog over the issue of ethnic and religious self-determination in Iraq, we guaranteed that each successive election would reflect embattled identities, rather than common national interests. Until more-rational borders have been established, attempts at democracy throughout the developing world will continue to follow the African model, in which the largest tribe or religious group dominates the election, then perceives its victory as a license to loot the entire country.

Resolve the issues of identity and land; then vote. Otherwise, we will continue to get ramshackle pseudo-democracies that rely for their survival on our troops, our money and our ability to rationalize failure.

While democracy remains a noble — and wise — long-term goal, we need to master that great American weakness, impatience. Democracy takes time: It's a grapevine, not a weed. Elections work best in two polar-opposite types of states: Those, such as the USA, where no single group can dominate and political parties rely upon fluid coalitions reflecting shifting interests, and those, such as Norway, where homogeneous populations vote strictly on issues, not over ethnicity or faith. The many countries in between those poles are the problem.

Admittedly, a people's self-determination doesn't guarantee a smooth transition to democracy. The try-it-out phases of self-rule in a newly minted state can produce anything from ethnic fascism to a religious junta. But populations have to make their own mistakes and learn from them. Democracy is self-taught.

We have to face a fundamental question: Can democracy be "given," rather than learned? 

Democracy is progressing around the world, but that progress is not without setbacks. Sudden freedom can be as terrifying as it is exhilarating. In states such as Russia, voters accept the curtailment of political freedom in return for greater social freedoms and a sense of security. Even established democracies, such as Venezuela's, may vote for strongmen who despise the ballot box.

Expedience wins out 

Two bipartisan failings in Washington hinder our efforts to help others achieve democracy: first, our blind acceptance of the world order left behind by collapsed European empires, and second, our prompt default to oppressive regimes in the name of maintaining stability. Even now, many on both sides of the aisle in Washington advise a retreat into the embrace of the Saudi royal family and despots such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — precisely the approach that put us on the path to 9/11.

We consistently choose the expedient option over the more difficult, but ultimately more promising, course in foreign policy. Without self-determination for major population groups that feel themselves wronged by history, we shall continue to fall short of our noblest goals.

Of course, amending borders to recognize Wilson's dream can't be done by the United States alone, nor need we pursue such a policy aggressively. It would be an enormous step forward if we only grasped opportunities to redraw faulty borders as they come — we threw away a great chance in Iraq. But we cannot go on standing on history's beach commanding the massive waves to freeze in place.

Those in Washington who have career-long stakes in the dysfunctional global order will insist that change is too hard, that small or landlocked states cannot survive, that smaller minorities inevitably would be slighted. The reasons for clinging to the past are always legion — and usually wrong.

Until the remaining nations-without-a-state are allowed to assert their identities, elections will continue to be about bloodlines and faith, not democracy as we cherish it.

Ralph Peters is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors and the author, most recently, of Never Quit The Fight.

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