The enduring appeal of authoritarianism.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Nov. 22 2006 1:33 PM

Freedom From Fear Trumps the Freedom To Vote

Why it's so hard to establish democracy in countries like Russia and Iraq.

Vladimir Putin. Click image to expand.
Russian President Vladimir Putin

President George W. Bush has staked his presidential legacy (and a whole lot more) on a bid to harvest democracy in Iraq. But he has made two crucial mistakes: He has raised unreasonably high expectations among Americans for the success of this monumentally complex undertaking, and he has failed to level with the American people about the true cost in blood and resources that such an effort would require. More than three and half years into the conflict, the president has lost most of the public confidence he enjoyed in 2003. With each passing week, replacing the unrealistic (democratization) with the possible (support for a regime that can restore Iraq's stability) begins to look like the Bush administration's best remaining option.

American presidents have made similar mistakes before—and not so long ago. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Clinton administration officials embarked on a plan to help shepherd the new Russia through "shock therapy" and a series of open elections toward free-market democracy. Expectations for success were high. But a considered long-term U.S. commitment to Russian democratization simply did not exist. Troops were not needed as they are in Iraq, but substantial political and financial support was required.


During the chaos of the Yeltsin years, Russians were buffeted by considerable political, economic, and social turmoil. Revanchist Communists mastered the language of nationalist xenophobia. Inflation stripped away livelihoods and ruined lives. Russian markets rode a rollercoaster.

Beginning in 2000, newly elevated President Vladimir Putin restored Russian stability by concentrating political power in the Kremlin, curbing free expression in the country's media, and consolidating economic power in the hands of the state. (The tripling of oil prices over the last four years has made his work much easier.) This forceful reimposition of order has earned Putin a 70-plus-percent approval rating. Broadly speaking, Russians have chosen the order that flows from authoritarianism over the chaos they believe was generated by ill-considered attempts to impose Western-style democracy.

The people of Afghanistan may already be headed toward the same conclusion. Afghans have nothing like the collective sense of national identity that Iraqis have developed over the last several decades or Russians over the last several centuries—and the elections that made Hamid Karzai president of Afghanistan are even less likely to generate lasting democracy.

Building democracy in a state with no democratic history is the work of decades—and it can't be done on the cheap. Investing considerable human, political, and financial capital in support of the construction of democracy in two such states simultaneously, acting as if national elections and good police work will create an inexpensive and self-sustaining momentum toward stable political pluralism, is foolhardy.

Democracy and the open society needed to nourish it requires more than peaceful elections. It demands the steady long-term development of governing institutions that are independent of one another, trump the power of the country's dominant political personalities, and earn the faith of its citizens.

The United States can continue to try to safeguard Iraq's security until that nation's political leaders forge the compromises needed to begin the long-term process of democratization. But American and British troops will not remain in Iraq indefinitely, because American and British taxpayers won't allow it.

Iraqis may be pleased with that option as well. When people face the daily uncertainties of life in a dangerously unstable country, they value stability above all else. Freedom from fear trumps the freedom to vote. Until Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds are finally free from fear of sectarian attack and economic exclusion, they will demand stability—just as Russians demand a strong president instead of a strong presidency. Many Iraqis will pledge allegiance to those who can protect them from other Iraqis.

The process of democratization creates instability in Iraq, Russia, Afghanistan, and any other state in which democracy remains an import. Democratization releases repressed demand for change, and previously disenfranchised players scramble for the first time for a share of the country's political and economic spoils.


War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.


It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

The Only Good Thing That Happened at Today’s Soul-Crushing U.N. Climate Talks

  News & Politics
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM Why Is Autumn the Only Season With Two Names?
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.