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Instant Democracy

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  • Eric Alterman
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Eric AltermanWe say journalism is the first draft of history. Too often, however, reporters forget this and attempt to offer grand pronouncements on the basis of only the slimmest of evidence, on the basis of only their own personal and political prejudices.

In early March, this tendency was thrown into high relief as many writers and reporters launched into a hasty, and ill-advised, round of generalizations concerning the nascent democratic stirrings sprouting up around the Middle East and the former Soviet Republics. Op-ed pages, magazines and newspapers all trumpeted the question "Was Bush right?" – with the implication that maybe the president's invasion of Iraq really did set off a wave of democratic reforms throughout the world.

Indeed, we did witness more than a few hopeful signs of potentially significant democratic movement. Free elections – or something close to them – were held in Palestine and Iraq; a corrupt election was peacefully overturned in Ukraine; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised to hold competitive elections; and the people of Lebanon took to the streets to force Beirut's Syrian-backed government to resign.

The problem in the coverage of these events is that many in the journalistic community were, absent any real evidence, eager to declare democracy on the march and credit Bush's invasion of Iraq as the catalyst. "The Bush administration is entitled to claim a healthy share of the credit for many of these advances," proclaimed the liberal New York Times editorial page in early March. Another in the Los Angeles Times claimed that "this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq.'"

Last month, in a cover story, the New Republic's Editor-in-Chief and part owner Martin Peretz said of events in Lebanon: "It is simply stupid, empirically and philosophically, to deny that all or any of this would have happened without the deeply unpopular but historically grand initiative of Bush." Apparently channeling the collective consciousnesses of the anti-Syrian protesters in Beirut, he wrote that "[t]he hundreds of thousands of young people in Martyrs' Square knew that they had Bush's backing." (And what of the far larger crowds who turned out in opposition to the first demonstrations? Peretz had little to say.)

Peretz continued on, crediting the president with the local (male only) elections in Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's decision to allow opponents to run in the presidential elections against him. What he omitted, however, was the fact that Mubarak continues to refuse to lift the martial law that has suppressed dissent in Egypt since he took power in 1981. What's more, opposition politician Ayman Nour has recently been arrested on vague forgery charges and has been banned from campaign rallies by Egyptian police. Still, according to conventional wisdom, democracy is on the move.

On March 14, Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria wrote one of the more strained apologias for Bush's policy, turning one of the president's most glaring faults – his lack of curiosity – into his greatest strength. Zakaria writes that the president's "capacity to imagine a different Middle East may actually be related to his relative ignorance of the region. Had he traveled to the Middle East and seen its many dysfunctions, he might have been disheartened." Indeed, one would not want a "disheartened" president made impotent by the threat of a challenge.

Even if one proceeds with the optimistic assumption that democracy is on the move in the Middle East and elsewhere, as Amr Hamzawy and Michael McFaul recently argued in the San Jose Mercury News, "The so-called Arab street is pushing the process, not the Bush administration or enlightened officials in the region's authoritarian governments." The authors also note that many Lebanese claimed that they drew the inspiration for their demonstrations not from lofty rhetoric coming from Washington, but instead from images broadcast on television sets of the events in the Ukraine.

Moreover, when one examines the administration's actual agenda for democracy, one happens upon the usual Bush-sized gap between words and deeds. As the media lauded the administration's rhetoric, they ignored the fact these same champions of democratic reform were in the process of cutting budgets for groups working to build democratic institutions in Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia.

The facts are that the National Endowment for Democracy has seen no increase in its funding over the past two years, while other democracy-building programs have been slashed by 38 percent in Eastern Europe and 46 percent in the former Soviet Union, according to the Washington Post. In the Ukraine, for example, where the president initially promised $60 million to help the fledgling democracy succeed, congressional Republicans slashed funding to a mere $33.7 million, with nary a peep of protest from the White House. Would that such news were worthy of attention in a media that continues to search for reasons to cheerlead for a failed foreign policy.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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