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.

Authoritarians are much better than democrats at quickly bringing order in such a frightening environment. This is mainly because it is easier and more efficient to impose martial law than to build political consensus. The volatility of democratic transitions creates demand for authoritarianism. If a country has more experience with dictators than with democrats, this demand may be second nature.

This is essentially what has happened in Russia and in warlord-dominated Afghanistan, and the United States may quickly find itself forced to support an authoritarian regime in Iraq to prevent the country from becoming either an Iranian satellite or an al-Qaida training camp.

In the end, this option might not be as unsavory as it sounds. Before Iraq can become a democracy, it must become a country safe enough for open political debate. As so many have argued, the violence in Iraq requires a political, not a military, solution. And as Bismarck once said, politics is the art of the possible.

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