Promoting Democracy vs. Promoting Human Rights:

The recently published annual State Department report on human rights notes that "democracy does not guarantee what President Bush has called a commitment to 'the non-negotiable demands of human dignity.'" It cites Russia and Venezuela as nations with democratically elected governments that violate basic human rights. Obviously, the case of the Afghan who may be executed by that nation's elected government for converting to Christianity raises the same issue. So too does the victory of the terrorist group Hamas in the recent Palestinian election. In these and other cases, democracy might conflict with other liberal values, including human rights, equality for women and minority groups, and the rule of law.

The Bush administration has focused on promoting democracy in the Muslim world, but has not given anything approaching equal attention to the cause of promoting liberal values more generally - especially in instances where doing so means constraining the powers of nascent democratic governments such as that in Afghanistan. Yet, ultimately, liberalism is at least as important to both US interests and those of Muslims themselves as democracy is. An illiberal democratically elected government may be just as likely to oppress its people and support terrorism as a dictatorship or oligarchy. And, as numerous historical examples suggest, such governments are unlikely to allow free elections in the future, especially if there is a chance that they might lose. It would be a shame if the Bush Administration succeeded only in establishing a series of "one man, one vote, one time" experiments.

I will have more to say about these issues in later posts. For now, I will note only that successful US democracy-promotion efforts in the past have usually involved extensive attention to promoting liberalism BEFORE the establishment of democratic governments. For example, Germany was not allowed to have an elected government until 1949 (4 years after WWII), and Japan not until 1951. In both cases, US occupation authorities first made sure to institutionalize liberal values and human rights, and ensured that the powers of the new government were subject to major limitations. I would not suggest that the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan should follow these historical precedents in exact detail. But I do think that US policy in these countries and elsewhere should focus more on promoting liberal values more generally and less on democracy, narrowly defined.

UPDATE: As Eugene points out in his post below, the Afghan government has now dropped the charges against Abdul Rahman, the convert to Christianity who might have been executed for "apostasy." I don't think this affects my main point, as the government continues to claim the right to execute other converts from Islam in the future, and (as Eugene also notes), such executions apparently have broad support in Afghan society.