Democracy and Rhetoric

24 January 2005

Democracy and Rhetoric

By Gwynne Dyer

“We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy,” said Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of of the organisation that calls itself “al-Qaeda in Iraq.” Zarqawi is the bogeyman that the US government currently blames for almost everything that has gone wrong in Iraq, but he does speak essentially the same language as President George W. Bush.

For Bush, as for Zarqawi, political principles come from God. In his “God-drenched” inauguration speech (as Ronald Reagan’s former speech-writer, Peggy Noonan, described it), President Bush explained that people have inalienable rights because they “bear the image of the Maker of heaven and earth,” and that America’s mission to spread democracy around the globe comes directly from “the Author of liberty.”

Bush recently remarked that he did not see “how you can be president without a relationship with the Lord” — so it is America’s duty and right to bring “freedom” to those who still live in darkness, both in order to make itself safe and as a public service: “By our efforts, we have lit…a fire in the hearts of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.”

Bush speeches are a treasure-trove of innocent fun. His speech-writers took the quote about having “lit a fire in the hearts of men” from Fyodor Dostoevsky, presumably not realising that they were quoting a bunch of terrorists who featured in his novel “The Devils,” and the “dark corners of the world” phrase pops up in every second Bush speech.

The problem is that George W. Bush’s belief that Americans basically own the copyright on democracy is widely shared even by Americans who deplore his actions. “Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals,” he said in his inauguration speech, and most Americans would probably agree that the United States is not just the “home of the free;” it is the main source of freedom in the world. The US crusade for freedom (aka democracy) is justified, even if it requires cluster-bombs and Guantanamo Bays, because otherwise there will be no freedom.

That is their fundamental mistake. The United States was the first mass democracy in history, but the “Founding Fathers” who carried out that revolution were the heirs of the European enlightenment and of over a hundred years of radical egalitarian thought in England: it was the English Levellers who first declared in 1647 that “all government is in the free consent of the people.” And only twelve years after the American Revolution, a far more radical revolution broke out in what was then the biggest nation of the West, France.

America’s democratic revolution had a huge impact on the world, but it was both less, and less indispensable, than most Americans suppose. Democracy was on its way anyway: to European countries first of all (maybe because practically everywhere else was under European imperial rule), but in due course even to the “dark corners of the world.” We are living through the final wave of that process in this generation, with non-violent democratic revolutions from Bangkok, Dhaka and Seoul to Berlin, Moscow and Johannesburg, and on to Jakarta, Tbilisi and Kiev. Few of them had American help.

This notion that the United States should “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” as President Bush put it in his inaugural speech, is profoundly misleading, because it suggests that American support for such transformations is essential. It isn’t even relevant, in most cases. People have to do it for themselves, and the most helpful thing that Washington could do would be to stop supporting the oppressors.

Most of the world’s countries already are democratic, and the exceptions are mainly in the Middle East and Africa, the two regions world where Western military interventions have been most frequent since the end of the colonial era. Indeed, it’s striking that within the Middle East, the primary focus of American anxieties about terrorism, the Islamist terrorists come overwhelmingly from countries that have close links with Washington — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and now Iraq — and not from places like Syria, Libya and Sudan. This is hardly an argument for further US military interventions.

“Liberty” and “freedom” (words President Bush used 42 times in his speech), are American catch-phrases for what other people call democracy: freedom under the law, and under the presumption that we are all equal before the law. That is the great revolution that has swept over the world in the past couple of centuries, and it is not an American gift to mankind. It’s not necessarily God’s gift either, unless you are religious. It’s just who we are.

Which is why, in an opinion poll carried out in fifteen of the biggest democratic countries in the week of Bush’s inauguration, 58 percent of the 22,000 people polled said that they expected his reelection to have a negative impact on peace and security, as compared to only 26 percent who thought it would be positive. In Canada, Britain, Australia and South Africa, France, Germany, Italy and Russia, Mexico, Brazil, China, Indonesia and Japan, the story was the same: deep distrust for the Bush administration’s policies and motives.

Mind you, 47 percent of Americans have the same response.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“Bush recently…Bush speech”)