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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

Past Issue
26 November 2001

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 2, No. 47

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Democracy Is a Necessity, Not a Nicety

Full-fledged democracies, with all of their strengths and weaknesses, are the most powerful deterrents to the malevolent aims of tyrants and terrorists.

by Jerome F. Winzig

During the Cold War, it often seemed the United States -- the world's most powerful democracy -- failed to encourage democracy abroad. Our effort to defeat Communism often led us to support strongmen and compromise on the very democratic principles that make America what it is. Some believe such compromises were justified because the world is a dangerous place.

Today the Cold War is over but the world is still a dangerous place. Sometimes the dangers are the result of our failure to support democracy abroad. Our unwillingness to take a risk on democracies in other countries has not brought us greater security. Rather, it has helped create the very conditions that endanger world peace all over the world. Three examples -- in Iran, Iraq, and Indonesia -- illustrate the results of this policy.

In August, 1953, American and British agents helped engineer a coup that overthrew Mohammed Mossadeq as the elected premier of Iran. The coup installed General Fazhollah Zahedi as the new premier, strengthened the monarchy of Shah Reza Pahlevi, and helped form SAVAK, the Iranian state police. Interestingly, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, father of the U.S. general of the same name who commanded the Gulf War against Iraq, was sent to explain the plot to the Shah. Deprived of democratic alternatives, Iran was governed by the Shah for another 26 years until he was overthrown in an Islamic revolution that helped create the conditions that led to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. government did not like the neutral stand taken by President Achmad Sukarno of Indonesia; it was felt he favored the Indonesian Communist Party. In 1965 he was overthrown in a coup that many believe was supported by the CIA. Sukarno's one-man rule was replaced by 32 years of dictatorship under Raden Suharto. While Indonesia's economic situation improved greatly, without democracy and accountability it was dominated by corruption and crony capitalism. Today, Indonesia has a shaky new democracy; Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the former president, faces terrorist threats, secessionist movements, and religious warfare.

In 1958, General Abdel Karim Kassem led a popular uprising that toppled the British-installed monarchy in Iraq. The following year, Saddam Hussein participated in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Kassem and went into exile in Syria and Egypt, where he made contact with the CIA. When Britain granted Kuwait independence in 1963, Kassem insisted that Kuwait was "an integral part of Iraq's territory." That same year, a CIA-aided coup overthrew Kassem, paving the way for Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party to take power in 1968.

Democracy is not a frivolous nicety; it is the essential ingredient for a just society and a peaceful world. As Winston Churchill put it, "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those others that have been tried from time to time."

Today many nations desperately need democracy. Its absence threatens our own security and penalizes the citizens of such undemocratic countries. In Zimbabwe, agricultural output has plummeted because of Robert Mugabe's one-man rule and the country totters on the edge of chaos. In 1992, the Algerian army cancelled elections because moderate Islamists were likely to win. In the decade since, a terrorist struggle has claimed the lives of 150,000 Algerians, most of them civilians. Earlier this month, at lest 600 died in a flood in the capital city of Algiers, many because storm sewers had been bricked up to keep out Islamist militants. Saudi Arabia is governed by a monarchy supported by the United States even though King Fahd is apparently brain-dead and there is no likelihood of democracy on the horizon.

Our failure to promote democracy abroad plays directly into the hands of the enemies of democracy and freedom. Osama bin Laden would not benefit from democracy in Saudi Arabia. He'd rather replace the Saudi oligarchy with his own one-man rule. Saddam Hussein has long wanted to rule the entire Arab world himself. Full-fledged democracies, with all of their strengths and weaknesses, are the most powerful deterrents to the malevolent aims of tyrants and terrorists.

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