Bush, Kramer debate democracy in Prague

No, that headline didn’t appear in The New York Times or the Washington Post. It’s a Sandbox exclusive. Is it accurate? Well, let’s not quibble. On June 5, at the Prague conference on “Democracy and Security: Core Values and Sound Policies,” and in front of an audience comprised of leading dissidents and democracy advocates, I addressed the conference theme. Four hours later, on the very same podium, President Bush delivered a speech on the very same theme. Of course, we didn’t actually debate or even meet, the President wasn’t present for my remarks, and he had forty minutes to make his case, while I had only seven.

Still, the two presentations reflect the two poles of the debate over democracy promotion. Below, read my text as delivered (or scroll down to the video and see me deliver it), and then read that part of Bush’s speech that holds the core of his argument. Then you decide. We begin with Kramer:

In urging democracy on the Middle East, its advocates generally argue that the spread of democracy will make the Middle East and the world more secure. The theory goes like this: dictators and authoritarian rulers need an external enemy to justify their grip on power. This makes them unreliable allies and bellicose neighbors. To preserve power, they not only threaten their own people, they directly or indirectly threaten us. As long as this region isn’t free, we’ll be insecure. My teacher and mentor Bernard Lewis has put it starkly: “We free them or they destroy us.”

Now there’s no doubt that such dictators have arisen in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein is their exemplar. Kanan Makiya described the Baath system in Iraq as a “republic of fear.” Such regimes are bellicose by design: they can be counted upon to wage war against their peoples and their neighbors. These dictatorships turn their subjects into what Natan Sharansky has called “fear societies.” Our obligation, in such cases, should be self-evident.

But the Middle East is also home to another kind of authoritarian rule. In this kind of system, the regime doesn’t rely only on fear, or even primarily on fear. Such regimes don’t require an external enemy or perpetual war. To the contrary: the ruler builds a consensus around the status quo, by sharing a bit of power, balancing interests, upholding law, and averting war. These aren’t free societies–you can’t stand in the town square and say what you want without fear of being arrested. But these aren’t “fear societies” and they aren’t “republics of fear.”

Now in the Middle East, Saddam-style dictatorship, with mass graves and invasions of neighbors, is the exception, not the rule. So is Taliban-style puritanism, based on terrorism at home and abroad. The same is true of the genocidal regime in the Sudan, and the potentially genocidal regime in Iran. Democracy competes not against them, but against this consensual authoritarianism. And the reason democracy is losing that competition is that consensual authoritarianism produces security for its peoples, and exports security to its neighbors and the world.

We mustn’t be blind to these facts: these regimes cooperate with the world in combatting terrorism and containing an aggressive Iran, they have peace treaties with Israel or float peace initiatives, they don’t threaten or intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, and they don’t seek weapons of mass destruction. None of them has gone to war in the last thirty-plus years.

And who are the net exporters of insecurity? These are states that have multi-polar or pluralistic systems: Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and what some call Palestine. These systems aren’t democracies, but in terms of formal practices like elections, they’ve actually gone the longer distance. Yet they don’t provide security for their peoples, and they export insecurity, in the form of terrorism, refugees, radical Islam, and nuclear threats. What’s discouraging is that this isn’t true in only some of the cases, or only half of them. It’s true, for now, in all if them.

Now it was also my teacher Bernard Lewis who said this: “Democracy is a strong medicine, which you have to give to the patient in small, gradually increasing doses. If you give too much too quickly, you kill the patient.” This doesn’t contradict his earlier statement, so much as it complements it. If they’re not made free, they’ll destroy us; but if they’re made free too quickly, they might destroy themselves, and take us with them.

So how do we know whether the democracy dosage is too much, too fast? Security is the test. People around the world will look to this conference and say: solve this conundrum. Don’t just cite precedents from other places and times. This is the Middle East, it looks different. Don’t just offer lofty rhetoric. People are skeptical of it. Don’t say that America will provide the security: it won’t. And don’t say that we have to think long-term: too much can go wrong in the short-term. The pro-democracy forces need to show how they’ll make their peoples not only freer, but more secure–and how they’ll make the rest of us safer.

Now unlike some others, I don’t think this is an impossible mission. But it has to be acknowledged as the primary mission of dissidents today. It’s a fact of life that the world’s support for freedom isn’t unconditional– even for this US administration–and security is the condition. Meet that condition, even part way, and good people in the world won’t just admire your courage. They might even take a chance and support you.

And here is President Bush’s rebuttal:

The freedom agenda is making a difference. The work has been difficult, and that is not going to change. There will be triumphs and failures, progress and setbacks. Ending tyranny cannot be achieved overnight. And of course, this objective has its critics.

Some say that ending tyranny means “imposing our values” on people who do not share them, or that people live in parts of the world where freedom cannot take hold. That is refuted by the fact that every time people are given a choice, they choose freedom. We saw that when the people of Latin America turned dictatorships into democracies, and the people of South Africa replaced apartheid with a free society, and the people of Indonesia ended their long authoritarian rule. We saw it when Ukrainians in orange scarves demanded that their ballots be counted. We saw it when millions of Afghans and Iraqis defied the terrorists to elect free governments. At a polling station in Baghdad, I was struck by the words of an Iraqi–he had one leg–and he told a reporter, “I would have crawled here if I had to.” Was democracy–I ask the critics–was democracy imposed on that man? Was freedom a value he did not share? The truth is that the only ones who have to impose their values are the extremists and the radicals and the tyrants.

And that is why the communists crushed the Prague Spring, and threw an innocent playwright in jail, and trembled at the sight of a Polish Pope. History shows that ultimately, freedom conquers fear. And given a chance, freedom will conquer fear in every nation on Earth.

Another objection is that ending tyranny will unleash chaos. Critics point to the violence in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Lebanon as evidence that freedom leaves people less safe. But look who’s causing the violence. It’s the terrorists, it’s the extremists. It is no coincidence that they are targeting young democracies in the Middle East. They know that the success of free societies there is a mortal threat to their ambitions–and to their very survival. The fact that our enemies are fighting back is not a reason to doubt democracy. It is evidence that they recognize democracy’s power. It is evidence that we are at war. And it is evidence that free nations must do what it takes to prevail.

Still, some argue that a safer goal would be stability, especially in the Middle East. The problem is that pursuing stability at the expense of liberty does not lead to peace–it leads to September the 11th, 2001. The policy of tolerating tyranny is a moral and strategic failure. It is a mistake the world must not repeat in the 21st century.

Others fear that democracy will bring dangerous forces to power, such as Hamas in the Palestinian Territories. Elections will not always turn out the way we hope. Yet democracy consists of more than a single trip to the ballot box. Democracy requires meaningful opposition parties, a vibrant civil society, a government that enforces the law and responds to the needs of its people. Elections can accelerate the creation of such institutions. In a democracy, people will not vote for a life of perpetual violence. To stay in power, elected officials must listen to their people and pursue their desires for peace–or, in democracies, the voters will replace them through free elections.

Finally, there’s the contention that ending tyranny is unrealistic. Well, some argue that extending democracy around the world is simply too difficult to achieve. That’s nothing new. We’ve heard that criticism before throughout history. At every stage of the Cold War, there were those who argued that the Berlin Wall was permanent, and that people behind the Iron Curtain would never overcome their oppressors. History has sent a different message.

The lesson is that freedom will always have its skeptics. But that’s not the whole story. There are also people like you, and the loved ones you represent–men and women with courage to risk everything for your ideals. In his first address as President, Vaclav Havel proclaimed, “People, your government has returned to you!” He was echoing the first speech of Tomas Masaryk–who was, in turn, quoting the 17th century Czech teacher Comenius. His message was that freedom is timeless. It does not belong to one government or one generation. Freedom is the dream and the right of every person in every nation in every age.

You’ve read two contrasting views, constituting a debate of sorts. I’ve had actual debates with democracy advocates on past occasions, and I do it for a reason: I want them to persuade me that I’m wrong and they’re right. It’s the one area where I’d rather be confounded than vindicated. Occasionally I’ll be moved a notch or two by one of these debates, until reality comes along and resets me to my previous position. Was I moved by Bush’s argument? No, but I can’t help wishing that history will prove him right, that all the dissidents I met in Prague will realize their dreams, and that my words will make me look foolish in a democratic future. I’ll relish them should I ever have to eat them–however cold they may be.

(My thanks to Natan Sharansky, my colleague at the Shalem Center’s Adelson Institute–conference co-sponsor–for including me in the proceedings.)

Update, June 14: Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute appeared on the same panel with me, and gives an account of our exchange here. It’s accurate.