The Limits of Democracy; the Elections in Iraq Had Wondrous Aspects, but They Also Divided the Country into Three Communities and Hardened the Splits

Newsweek, January 29, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Limits of Democracy; the Elections in Iraq Had Wondrous Aspects, but They Also Divided the Country into Three Communities and Hardened the Splits


Byline: Fareed Zakaria

No president has attached his name more completelyto the promotion of democracy than George W. Bush. He speaks of it with genuine passion and devoted virtually his entire second Inaugural to the subject. His administration talks constantly about its "freedom agenda" and interprets global events largely in such terms. Last summer, for example, as missiles, car bombs and IEDs exploded across Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq, Condoleezza Rice described the violence as the "birth pangs" of a new, democratic Middle East. So it is striking to read this year's annual survey of "freedom in the world," released last week by Freedom House, a nonprofit that is engaged in promoting democracy around the globe. The report points out that 2006 was a bad year for liberty, under attack from creeping authoritarianism in Venezuela and Russia, a coup in Thailand, massive corruption in Africa and a host of more subtle reversals.

"The percentage of countries designated as free has failed to increase for nearly a decade and suggests that these trends may be contributing to a developing freedom stagnation," writes Freedom House director of research Arch Puddington in an essay released with the rankings. Puddington also calls attention to the "pushback" against democracy. Regimes across the world are closing down nongovernmental organizations, newspapers and other groups that advocate for human rights. And, I would add, what is most striking is that these efforts are not being met with enormous criticism. Democracy proponents are on the defensive in many places.

What explains this paradox--of freedom's retreat, even with a U.S. administration vociferous in promoting democracy? Some part of the explanation lies in the global antipathy to the U.S. president. "We have all been hurt by the association with the Bush administration," Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian activist, told me last month. "Bush's arrogance has turned people off the idea of democracy," says Larry Diamond, co-editor of the Journal of Democracy.

But he goes on: "There's a lot more to it than that. We need to face up to the fact that in many developing countries democracy is not working very well." Diamond points to several countries where elections have been followed by governmental paralysis, corruption and ethnic warfare. The poster child for this decline has to be Nigeria, a country often lauded for its democracy. In fact, the place is in free fall--an oil-rich country with per capita GDP down to $390 (from $1,000 20 years ago), a ranking below Bangladesh on the United Nations Human Development Index, and with a third of the country having placed itself under Sharia. …

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