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Democracy? What's in it for Us?

By J.d. Connor

CASE 1. A group of Palestinians is gunned down in the occupied territories. The United Nations moves to condemn Israel. Will the U.S. join them?

Case 2. A military dictatorship ignores the results of free elections, imprisons opposition leaders and endangers American citizens living in the country. How will the U.S respond?

The answer in both cases is, "What difference does it make?" Not because the Bush administration doesn't care--because it will care if caring is prudent. No, it's because the Bush administration formulates foreign policy on an as-needed basis, stumbling from crisis to crisis.

This policy of non-policy is the Bush Doctrine. Bush said as much last month in his speech to the joint session of Congress, in which he laid out U.S. objectives in the Persian Gulf and his views on the post-Cold War world order.

Perhaps you missed that last one. People simply ignored the bombast when Bush said, "American and the world must defend common vital interests. And we will. America and the world must support the rule of law. And we will. America and the world must stand up to aggression. And we will. And one thing more. In pursuit of these goals, America will not be intimidated."

DID you catch it? Right when it sounds like Bush is going to make a stand for a strong international community, he turns rogue. America, and America alone, will pursue "world" goals because--as the Gulf Crisis has "surely proven"--"there is no substitute for American leadership." The Bush Doctrine amounts to "securing" American interests, preferably, but not necessarily, with the acquiescence of the rest of the world.

Under this scheme, there are three kinds of states: "Friends" whom the U.S. appears to protect while actually serving its own ends; "Enemies" who oppose U.S interests; and "Others," a nebulous category that includes those countries that no longer matter under the Bush Doctrine. The Others are trumpeted as "successes" when things go well, but are merely "unfortunates" when things go badly.

In this typology, a country can be a friend one day and an Other the next. It all depends on what difference it makes--on what the impact on American interests will be. Bush's pragmatism is the Janus-face of post-Cold War imperialism. Without overriding ideological goals to defend, selfish interests take on primary importance.

WHEN Palestinians were shot two weeks ago in Jerusalem, the U.S. moved quickly to get the UN to take action against Israel. Eventually, the U.S. ambassador managed to pass a U.S-sponsored resolution, prevent the more radical PLO resolution from passing and keep the anti-Iraq coalition together. The maneuver was a major victory for Bush's policy in the Gulf--giving Israel the lightest rebuke possible without seeming overly solicitous toward its long-time Friend.

But when Palestinians were shot in May, 1990, the Security Council voted unanimously in favor of a similar resolution. That time, the U.S vetoed the resolution, saying it would only "generate, more needless dispute in the area." The U.S. "stood by" Israel (and against some of its closest European allies).

What was the difference? Simply, Iraq. The U.S. did not suddenly realize that the occupation was unjust. It was the Iraqi invasion that prompted the U.S. to reverse its "Israel right or wrong" policy, thus showing that the U.S. would consistently place interest above "friendship." This is the Bush Doctrine's double edge.

CONSIDER the case of Panama. A military dictatorship refuses to honor the results of a free election, brutalizes opposition figures, harasses U.S citizens an imposes a reign of terror on the populace.

Bush's response: send in the Marines.

Now consider the case of Myanmar (the new name for Burma). A military dictatorship refuses to honor the results of a free election, brutalizes opposition figures, harasses U.S. citizens and imposes a reign of terror on the populace.

Bush's response: send an envoy to the dictator expressing his unhappiness with the situation.

In 1988, Burmese armed forces killed at least 3000 pro-democracy demonstrators. The military then took power, promising free elections. Despite the intimidation and imprisonment of leading opposition figures, elections were held in May of this year, and the main pro-democracy party won more than two-thirds of the seats in the new national assembly. The military promised to turn over power in September.

Since then, things have gotten progressively worse. The military junta has tightened martial law, murdered dissidents and detained thousands without charge. Just as in Kuwait and Iran, the sanctity of foreign of embassies has been violated, thus putting "American lives at risk." The U.S response was to join other Western countries in filling a protest with the junta.

Why didn't the U.S duplicate its Panamanian invasion? Not because Bush has had second thoughts about military intervention in sovereign nation. Not because Bush values the lives of American soldiers too highly.

No, Bush has a very different reason--Myanmar has no canal. Myanmar does not make it convenient for the U.S Navy or the merchant marine to get from point A to point B. Dictatorship in Myanmar is therefore "unfortunate," not "threatening." Bush has little reason to promote "the rule of law" in such a strategically unimportant land.

This isn't to suggest that the U.S. should be running around the world invading every country that quashes democratic movements. If we did that, we would have invaded most of our Friends by now.

But military intervention is not the only U.S. option. Bush, in his belief that there is "no substitute for American leadership," remains mired in the Cold War mentality he thought he was getting beyond, a mentality in which the options are invade or ignore.

A world beyond the Cold War requires something far different from the Bush Doctrine. It requires a renewed commitment to the UN (not selective attention), real efforts at regional solutions and, above all, a doctrine that does not place America above all. These policies would make a difference, instead of merely asking "What difference does it make?"

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