Spreading Democracy; 'The Philosophical Argument of the Age'

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Byline: Tod Lindberg, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

During the remarkable round of interviews he gave to major newspapers last week, President Bush spoke often of his commitment to the spread of democracy, sometimes in startling terms. As he told the Wall Street Journal in an aside after the end of the formal interview, "I understand there are many who say 'Bush is wrong.' I assume I'm right. It's exciting to be part of stimulating a debate of such significance. It really is the philosophical argument of the age." I don't know which is the more remarkable: An American president who thinks in terms of "the philosophical argument of the age." Or that, well, yes, Mr. Bush is right, the question of the spread of democracy really is the philosophical argument of the age.

Mr. Bush has picked his side: He stands for the promotion of democracy and, fresh from his own re-election, has reaffirmed his commitment of the United States to the cause of its promotion. So we have the leader of the world's biggest power committing it to securing "the Blessings of Liberty" - as the Constitution puts it - not just "to ourselves and our Posterity" but across the globe.

Mr. Bush thinks big. Some might have imagined the war on terror to have been his great project and the one on which his legacy would stand or fall. But here, he has subsumed even that task under the broader "philosophical argument of the age": The best weapon against terror is political participation of the sort only democracy allows. Terror is born of alienation from the political process, from denial of the ability to participate in making the decisions that govern one's life.

But isn't the war on terror really a war against Islamist radicalism? Yes, but considered in terms of "the philosophical argument of the age," that radicalism is itself an expression of alienation. It will not survive the extension of democracy and political participation, at least not in nearly so virulent and dangerous a form. Islamism grows where Muslims lack democracy, understood in the sense of a permanent political system of self-governance with regular elections and protected minority rights. Islamism has grown in democratic Europe precisely because of Muslim alienation from politics there.

The post-Cold War era saw the rapid spread and (not without bumps) consolidation of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. Yet as recently as a year or two ago, it seemed as if the door was closing on the prospect of further extension of the democratic space: Russia was becoming increasingly authoritarian and was meddling to undemocratic effect in its "near abroad"; Afghanistan was badly divided, prone to warlordism; Iraq was a disappointment. …