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Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

November 25, 2004

LONDON - Mark Palmer, the U.S. State Department's former top "Kremlinologist", has proposed the world's democracies set themselves the goal of ridding the world of its 43 remaining dictators over the next twenty years.

Surely this is something liberals and neo-conservatives can agree on. One would wish it so but unfortunately the means separates them.

President George W. Bush said the other day that, "The reason I'm so strong on democracy is democracies don't go to war with each other. I've got great faith in democracies to promote peace." This is a great philosophical leap forward for conservatives. Not so long ago they poked fun at the human rights obsessiveness of former president Jimmy Carter and did everything they could to stymie his efforts in Latin America in particular to quicken the pace of democratic evolution. When Ronald Reagan defeated Carter he gave short shrift to human rights goals and in Central America he backed the caudillos against the ballot box, Armalite against the vote.

If Bush indeed has been converted to this rather modern day attitude to democracy - which was only "proved" in a long series of academic papers probing the historical record of the last few centuries that appeared in Harvard University's quarterly, "International Security", six years ago- then we should rejoice.

But this theory of the democratic peace, which in many ways is convincing, says nothing about the best means of achieving this ambition or about how democracies in the pursuit of their worthy goal can avoid going to war with non-democracies. If the Bush view is merely the latest right wing fig leaf for a policy of aggression driven by fear of anti-American regimes protecting themselves from attack by developing nuclear weapons then, as with the war in Iraq, the need to resist the Bush worldview remains an imperative. American aggression makes it more difficult not less to continue the spread of democracy.

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Intervention is always going to be a two edged sword. But what gives it a real cutting edge is if it's credible. And that can only happen if it is clear to most onlookers that the decision to intervene is motivated by the quest for justice. That in turn begs a second question - have the would-be interveners been complicit in allowing the situation to deteriorate to unspeakable injustice?

In the Iraq situation we know that the U.S. and other Western governments were full square behind Iraq as it fought a World War 1-type conflict of attrition with Iran which the U.S. could not forgive either for its fundamentalist stridency nor for its taking hostage the diplomats of the U.S. embassy a few years earlier. And today, as the U.S. is perhaps girding itself to do battle with Iran over its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, is there a an honest and self-critical weighing of the many opportunities that were refused during recent previous administrations to take hold of the olive branch a then increasingly democratic Iran was offering?

Prevention in the pursuit of democracy is a sounder tool than intervention. Prevention may be less newsworthy and more difficult to justify to the public than intervention in times of crisis. It requires the sustained investment of significant resources without the emotive media images of confrontation or hardship and suffering. Prevention means getting in whilst a situation is still fluid and can be resolved or at least ameliorated without violence.

The NATO governments which bombed Belgrade were the same governments that decided to turn a blind eye to Slobodan Milosevic's government during the break up of the original Yugoslavia and were unwilling to address repeated warnings from the likes of Amnesty International about the fast deteriorating human rights situation. Why wasn't the carrot of membership of the European Union in return for good behavior dangled then when Yugoslavia was still a functioning, reasonably prosperous state, rather than waiting until years of war had broken the economic back of nearly every constituent part of the old Yugoslavia?

In short, why should those in the West who want to extend the reach of democracy be pressed by Washington and London to choose between intervention and inaction? Why should we be forced to choose between two types of failure when the successful course of action is known?

One side of the Bush administration apparently recognizes the power of the argument on the side of prevention. The U.S. Senate is poised this month to approve permanent trade relations with old enemy, communist, dictatorial Laos. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and Robert Zoellick the U.S. trade representative earlier told Congress in a joint statement, that this "would create a more cooperative atmosphere and opportunities that will help open the society and leverage our efforts to improve human rights, religious freedom and the rule of law in Laos".




Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:




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