As the joyous display of purple fingers in Iraq again attests, the national struggle for democracy is a moral good and, if it succeeds, a human triumph. But it is not by itself a victory for American national security. We need a policy based on the recognition that democracy in the Middle East and beyond is definitely desirable, maybe necessary but hardly sufficient to secure our future.
In an article on this page Dec. 11 ["The Promise of Democratic Peace"], Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argued that the "goal of our statecraft is to help create a world of democratic, well-governed states that can meet the needs of their citizens and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system."
She explains that transnational threats—terrorism, weapons proliferation, crime and disease—cross borders quickly and can inflict great harm on the United States. "Weak and failing states serve as global pathways that facilitate the spread" of these threats, she wrote.
Rice is dead right on all counts. Unfortunately, her solution to the challenge of weak states and transnational threats is at best inadequate.
Promoting freedom has become the cornerstone of the Bush administration's national security policy. Democracy and freedom are universal human aspirations as well as wise policy objectives that we should actively pursue. Democratic states are less likely to go to war with one another and more likely to govern responsibly.
Yet, the American people would be ill-advised to accept as axiomatic the premise that democracy alone will secure our future or eliminate terrorism.
The jury remains out over whether democracy in the Arab world would yield governments more supportive of U.S. interests, produce populaces less sympathetic to jihadists or prevent al Qaeda from pursuing its goals through terrorism. At stake is more than presidential rhetoric. Democracy promotion has become the sole and defining element of President Bush's long-term counterterrorism approach. That is why the administration has an obligation to go beyond assertion and demonstrate convincingly that its one-dimensional strategy will yield the desired result. If it cannot, the administration risks putting all of our security eggs in the wrong basket.
The Bush formula is flawed on another score: As Rice outlined it, its premise is that democracy will enable weak states to become capable of providing for their citizens, controlling their territory and effectively combating transnational threats. But fragile democracies that are impoverished remain prone to coups and civil conflict. They also lack resources and institutional capacity to act as responsible states.
From Mali to Tanzania, from Bangladesh to Indonesia, poverty hobbles many nascent democracies, which cannot prevent terrorists from operating on their territory or contain outbreaks of disease. To strengthen weak states, we must do more than promote democracy. We must join with others to build state capacity, in substantial part by helping to alleviate poverty.
The administration's focus is also too limited geographically. The secretary said, referring to the Middle East: "In one region of the world . . . the problems emerging from the character of regimes are more urgent than in any other."
Perhaps, but unless we focus on building state capacity in other regions, we will fall far short in thwarting transnational threats, which can emanate from anywhere.
Finally, if freedom is key to our national security, why is the administration ambivalent about implementing this policy outside Iraq? The president's fiscal 2006 budget requested $30 million less for his Middle East Partnership Initiative than did the previous year's. That same budget also reduced democracy funds for the former Soviet Union.
When Rice visited Cairo this summer, she laid out tough benchmarks against which we would measure Egypt's electoral process. But last week, after Egypt's violent electoral sham, a State Department spokesman termed the overall process "positive" before expressing mild concern about its flaws.
These mixed signals must puzzle, if not deflate, democracy activists across the world.
View the transcript of an interview and discussion with Susan Rice on washingtonpost.com.