Two cheers for democracy

Today’s lead Washington Post editorial, “The Case for Democracy,” responds to arguments, based on recent developments in Iraq and among the Palestinians, that the Bush administration’s project of promoting democracy in the Middle East is misguided. The Post makes several good points, including the one I made the other day — that the administration has not adopted a general policy of attempting to “impose” democracy by force.
The Post’s best argument is that the administration’s critics fail to acknowledge the weaknesses of the alternatives to a pro-democracy approach. In Iraq, for example, what reason is there to believe we’d be better off not pursuing a constitutional democracy? Any other scenario seems almost guaranteed to lead to civil war (since an authoritarian regime would be either Sunni or Shiite). One might argue that avoiding that outcome is not worth American lives. But that argument goes more to the question of what sacrifices Americans are willing to make than to the merits of the case for democracy.
As to the Palestinians, it’s difficult to see what has been lost by virtue of Hamas’s victory. Under the prior regime, Israel was plagued by Palestinian terrorism except to the extent that its security forces, or the expectation that Israel would make concessions, prevented it. I assume that this will continue to be true. Whatever form of government exists on the West Bank, Israel faces the prospect of Palestinian terrorism as long as a critical mass of Palestinians wish to inflict it. The argument for democracy is that by producing better governance, it may hasten the day when a critical mass no longer supports terrorism, and that if that day arrives, terrorism will fade away more quickly in a democracy. That argument is speculative to be sure, but the electoral success of Hamas does not cut against it.
JOHN adds: It’s easy to think of arguments against the administration’s long-term strategy of reducing terrorism by promoting legitimate governance and economic development in the Muslim world. But I keep coming back to the fact that no one, as far as I can tell, has proposed an alternative strategy. And I do think that history supports the proposition that transparent, reasonably honest and more or less democratic regimes are unlikely to promote pathologies like terrorism.

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