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The Democratic Cause

by Katherine Howell

Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, by Condoleezza Rice (Twelve, 458 pp., $35)

‘My family participated in the democratic process as if it mattered, even when, in substance, it didn’t,” Condoleezza Rice writes of growing up in the Jim Crow South. She attributes this to an “inexplicable faith.” It is a similar faith, and a hope, that she now holds out for the rest of the world — that there will someday come an opening for democracy in countries that might seem perpetually doomed to corruption, repression, war, and terrorism. And she still believes it is the job of the United States to promote and nourish such openings.

In some ways, the former secretary of state’s latest book comes at an inauspicious political moment. Much of the public is now more pessimistic about the prospects for democracy’s spreading abroad, and more skeptical of America’s ability to influence world events, than it was in the recent past. There are plenty of reasons for this shift in the national mood: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise of ISIS, the dashed hopes of the Arab Spring, the horrors in Syria, and so on.

Rice does not deny or sugarcoat this state of affairs, but she is not writing entirely for this particular moment; she takes a longer and a wider view, drawing on her experiences as an adviser and diplomat at the highest levels of government and her academic background.

Her optimism rests in part on her reading of American history as itself, essentially, a long and bumpy road to the consolidation of democracy, with the civil-rights movement as a key moment of democratic transition. In part, it is rooted in her belief that the desire for an accountable and representative government that meets its people’s needs is universal, and so people who lack it will eventually demand it of their leaders.

How this process plays out varies from country to country, depending on the strength of civil society and institutions, and the differing ways leaders respond to crises. In Rice’s telling, transitions to democracy are often partial, fragile, and reversible, and are never entirely secure. Sometimes they fail. Rice deals honestly with some of the failures in her book.

She defends the effort to install democracy in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, but she readily acknowledges that it was bungled in many ways and for various reasons: a misplaced faith in the Iraqi diaspora, the premature disbanding of the army, a failure to court the Sunni tribes early on, and most of all not deploying enough troops to secure the country from the outset. As the Bush administration drew to a close, though, she felt that it had left the Iraqis with a decent shot at a stable democracy. She laments, respectfully, that President Obama squandered that chance by failing to extend the Status of Forces Agreement in 2011 and withdrawing most American troops. But she holds out hope that the now quasi-functioning institutions the Iraqis have will help them to rebuild if and when ISIS is finally vanquished.

While Rice insists flat-out that “a stable Middle East will one day have to be a democratic Middle East,” she concedes that “one man, one vote” is not a magic formula for producing liberal government and the protection of individual rights. The results of the Palestinian and Egyptian elections made that clear enough. (Her account of being shocked and shaken by Hamas’s 2006 victory is remarkably humble and forthright.) But Rice is fairly sanguine about the ability of “moderate Islamists” to participate in democratic governance under certain circumstances: She points to Tunisia as a model of relative success in balancing Islamists against more secular forces. She reasons that outlawing Islamist groups and driving them underground, as Hosni Mubarak did for decades in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood, is not a tenable solution to the question that dogs the Middle East: How to reconcile religion and politics?

One might take issue with the assumption that they can be reconciled in a way that conduces to liberal democracy, at least so long as Islamic fanaticism remains in the mix. And Rice’s cool eye and matter-of-fact tone can seem misplaced when she is discussing what could be fairly described as religious genocide in the region. In Iraq, she writes, “freedom of religion is guaranteed. . . . Yet religious minorities are being driven out of the country.” That guarantee amounts, at present, to a cruel joke for Christians and other religious minorities. If, in the long term, it becomes something more than that, it will be too late for most of them.

Rice’s discussion of the Middle East’s thorny problems is balanced by what appear, in contrast, to be tentative democratic success stories: Poland, Kenya, and Colombia. While serving on the National Security Council in the George H. W. Bush administration, Rice had a front-row view of the quickly unfolding events that culminated in a free Poland and had a hand in shaping the efforts the United States took to assist the newly liberated country. One insight that she gleans from the Polish experience is the necessity of having institutions that command a broad base of support among the populace, as the Solidarity movement did. This might seem rather obvious, but it points to the reason many liberal-democratic movements founder: They are concentrated among an educated urban elite that does not speak for more rural, traditional, and religious elements of society. This was the case in Russia, and in Egypt. These experiences might also hold a lesson for today’s advanced democracies that are being roiled by a surging populism.

In addition to civil-society groups and institutions, leaders, of course, play a decisive role in democratization. Poland was blessed in its founding fathers. Yeltsin was not the man Russia needed; Putin still less. Sometimes, leaders put their country on a better path simply by being willing to step down at a key turning point, as with Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi’s bowing out in 2002 after more than 20 years in power. On the clearly positive side of the ledger, in Rice’s account, Álvaro Uribe was largely responsible for wresting control of Colombia back from the left-wing FARC guerrilla movement and the right-wing paramilitaries that had locked it in a cycle of atrocities and lawlessness. The United States was able to render effective assistance to Colombia once it had a credible partner in Uribe. Rice describes the mutual understanding and commitment between Uribe and George W. Bush as playing a crucial role.

As for what the United States can generally do to encourage democracy abroad, Rice thinks foreign aid, delivered in the right way, makes a difference. She points to an initiative established in the Bush administration: the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a government agency that delivers targeted and conditional aid to countries that undertake political and economic reforms. She credits the program’s aid to Liberia with helping it respond effectively to the Ebola crisis.

Rice is at pains to note throughout that, while the engagement of the United States and the liberal order it upholds is important, and perhaps indispensable, whether a country democratizes depends on the desires and actions of its own people — democracy cannot be imposed.

In a way, Rice’s commitment to democracy promotion recalls T. S. Eliot’s admonition that “there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause.” No country ever entirely loses its chance at democracy, and none ever entirely gains democracy in such a way that the accomplishment can be taken for granted. Those inclined to dismiss the Freedom Agenda as a lost cause would do well first to give Rice’s work the serious attention it deserves.

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