Democratic institutions are gaining a foothold in parts of the Middle East, according to U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. But only time will tell if the institutions flourish and if so, how those democracies will look compared with ours, Feith told an audience at the Kennedy School Forum March 3.
“Democracy is a lot more than elections,” Feith said. “The institutions that are foundation stones for democracies – like multiple centers of power and an independent judiciary and a free press and a culture of compromise – those institutions take time. As exciting as these developments are, I think we need to approach them soberly.”
Feith pointed to recent hopeful political developments in Lebanon, Egypt, and Israel/Palestine, but he warned his listeners that much remains to be done to ensure that the democratic institutions taking root there can flourish and serve the needs of the people. Once that happens, he said, democracies in each country will necessarily grow in their own unique way.
“No one should be surprised if and when new democracies in other parts of the world emerge looking quite different from our own,” he stated. “As more and more societies achieve self-government they will evolve institutions and practices and fit their own cultures and circumstances.”
Feith defended the Bush administration’s policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East, saying that it is a key component of an “offensive strategy” in the war against international terrorism.
“The president decided [that] in dealing with the terrorists we had to either change the way that we live or change the way that they live,” he said. “To defeat our enemies in this war, we will have to do more than disrupt and attack. We will have to counter their ideology.”
The effort began in Afghanistan and continues today in Iraq, where the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 has resulted in the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the construction of a new political framework, free elections, and the drive toward a new Constitution.
“I see President Bush’s promotion of human freedom not as arrogance or naïve and rampant Wilsonianism,” Feith said. “The president starts from the well-grounded observation that societies with free political institutions provide their people with greater personal liberty and prosperity than do societies without such institutions. He observes that the rejection of tyranny and the aspiration for freedom is not peculiar to our particular culture.”
Feith’s appearance at the forum was co-sponsored by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Harvard Republican Club, the Kennedy School Republican Caucus, the Kennedy School International Security Caucus, and the Institute of Politics.