Monday, May 25, 2009

Democracy doesn't come with guarantees

Doug Bandow, on the Cato Institute blog:
The U.S. government is a big proponent of democracy — as long as foreign peoples do what they are told. Washington pushed for early elections in Gaza and the result was … oops! A victory for Hamas. So now Washington doesn’t like democracy and won’t talk to the victors of a democratic vote.
The fact that our government contends against Hamas in no way equates to us not liking democracy. The transition from tyranny to freedom is messy, and free elections, while a huge step forward, do not come with guarantees. Just as Americans who champion our political process are often disappointed with the results and vie against the victors, so it is on the world stage. It is appropriate that we oppose terrorist governments, even while continuing to support free elections. These policies are consistent in attempting to advance the cause of freedom.

It's worth noting that Hamas is generally considered more "moderate" than the Fatah party they replaced. Perhaps their election to power is a disappointing step toward freedom, but it is step nonetheless.

Bandow continues:

Now the pattern risks repeating itself. Vice President Joe Biden recently visited Lebanon and told the Lebanese how much America likes democracy — as long as they vote for the parties that the Obama administration prefers. Reports Associated Press:

Vice President Joe Biden said Friday that future U.S. aid to Lebanon depends on the outcome of upcoming elections, a warning aimed at Iranian-backed Hezbollah as it tries to oust the pro-Western faction that dominates government.

Confident its alliance will win, Hezbollah criticized Biden’s visit as a U.S. attempt to influence the June 7 vote and held a mass rally to show its popular support.

Biden is the highest-level U.S. official to visit Lebanon in more than 25 years and the attention shows American concern that the vote could shift power firmly into the hands of Hezbollah. U.S. officials have said before they will review aid to Lebanon depending on the composition of the next government, apparently meaning military aid.

“The election of leaders committed to the rule of law and economic reform opens the door to lasting growth and prosperity as it will here in Lebanon,” Biden said. The U.S. “will evaluate the shape of our assistance programs based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates.”

The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist group and Biden’s one-day visit was clearly timed to bolster the Western-leaning faction led by Prime Minister Fuad Saniora ahead of the vote. He expressed strong support for the government.

I see nothing wrong with US aid being contingent upon whether Lebanon elects leaders who will pursue policies consistent with American interests. It's our money, after all, so it makes sense that we should only share it with those whose interests are aligned with ours.
Given the disastrous record of foreign aid over the years, I’d rather the administration simply stop handing out Americans’ money, irrespective of the government in power in a particular nation. But Washington certainly should stop trying to publicly, even ostentatiously, buy votes. Imagine how Americans would respond to a similar threat from another country: “We’ll pay you if you vote our way, but forget the cash if you choose the other guys.” Most Americans, whatever their personal political preferences, would not be amused, shall we say.
I'm sympathetic to the argument that we should stop foreign aid altogether. I'm not knowledgeable enough to understand how much bang we get for our literal buck. But efficiency is not a hallmark of government, so it wouldn't take much to convince me that our money could be better spent at home, particularly with the amount of debt we are running up.

But I have little issue, in principle, with our nudging other countries toward outcomes favorable to the US. "Buying votes" isn't exactly what we are doing, at least not in a way that's much different than what happens in our own domestic elections. Support is routinely extended and withdrawn in order to influence elections and policies.

I'll grant that it's more egregious when we meddle in other people's affairs. But we have a vested interest in the Middle East. Their affairs are our affairs. And if being discriminating in who we give money to advances our interests, I'm okay with that.

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