On paper it is a simple idea, seductive even: Foreign policy should be based on democracy. Countries that favor democracy and hold elections move into the category of good guys, while those who install authoritarian or dictatorial or religious government move into the column of bad guys, or difficult friends.
Yet this is the very principle on which the United States and its democratic allies have often stumbled badly in the Middle East, Africa and sometimes in Latin America. In the Arab countries and much of Africa, elections have facilitated authoritarian rule; or the result has been to install a theocracy or some other government hostile to the purposes of democracy — and the interests of the West. As departing colonial administrators in Africa would lament: one man, one vote, once. And so it was.
In Africa, the pattern has been for the winner of the first free election to use the power of the result to vote himself into power permanently. While the West applauded initial democratic elections, sinister forces massed to pervert the result for other, contradictory results. For example, radical Islam in Algeria in 1990, a Marxist government under Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970, and crazed Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe after the end of white minority rule in 1980.
The list of elections that produced a result that neither served the purposes of the West nor the oppressed populations of the countries concerned is long and growing.
Elections have been the prologue to something bad or worse than that which preceded them. Egypt painfully illustrates the dilemma: elections, theocratic tilt, coup, authoritarian military rule. End game: democracy vanquished, United States humiliated, its principles tarnished and business as usual with dictators resumed. America emerges again as the Great Hypocrite.
The United States and its allies are not wrong in wishing for a democratic world; it is just that democracy requires a popular will to defend it and strong independent institutions to protect it. Democracy cannot be parachuted in. Elections are not democracy; they are the first step, that is all.
Another organizing principle that has been passed over in the rush to Potemkin democracies is human rights. Not the human rights that the U.S. State Department has monopolized as a policy tool (negotiating government to government often with a Congressional chorus in the background), but rather the concept of human rights championed by none other than former President Jimmy Carter, and lauded by Jacobo Timerman, the Argentine journalist and publisher, who was imprisoned by the Argentine junta during its “dirty war” waged from 1976-83.
Timerman’s idea — and he gave lavish credit to Carter — was to promote the concept that every human being is entitled to be seen as encased in an invisible bubble of their rights, dignity and security of their person, where they cannot be touched, coerced or imprisoned without due process and always with transparency. It is a concept identical but more developed than that of habeas corpus, which has been enshrined in English common law and derivative systems for centuries.
Timerman’s book “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number” was a runaway international bestseller at the time of its publication; although Timerman, an ardent Zionist, fell out of favor with the foreign policy elite in this country when he criticized Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Yet I clearly remember Timerman praising Carter for the concept of the invisible, human rights sheath. It spoke to me because of my experience as a young man in Africa. I am no fan of Carter — I found him unctuous — but I thought this was a brilliant, exportable, durable idea that, if promoted, could point people toward democracy. I could see how it would be adopted by the lowliest peasant in Malawi and, hopefully, his jailer.
The concept of the inalienable right of the human being to justice and safety is very American; it is also a practical organizing principle for a foreign policy that must deal with such differing regimes — a Saudi Arabia and Cuba — both in deficit for human rights and democracy. You do not always have to hector a government if it knows where you are coming from; ideas get through. — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate