Elections No Panacea

President Bush’s basic premise for his Iraq policy seems to be that once democracy is established there, it will spread to surrounding countries, and that democratic countries will not pose a threat to us.

I think this reflects the bias that is shared by politicians and political junkies of all persuasions — i.e., that government is all-important. Let’s conduct a little test by analyzing our day.

Mine began with a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee. I watched the news, taking note of the new attack near Mosul. I was mainly interested because friends of mine have a son stationed in that area. Then I made my To-Do List and set off to finish Christmas shopping. I saw two policemen on horseback in the mall parking lot. I stopped for a Cuban sandwich. I came home. Despite the news and the sight of the two police officers, I didn’t think about government at all.

I believe this is true not only of most Americans, but of people everywhere. Unless we work for the government, our lives really don’t intersect with it very much, except when it intrudes in the form of a parking ticket or a tax bill. We mostly take it for granted.

That’s why I think the president is more interested in the Iraqi election than the Iraqis are. What they want most of all are security and a restored infrastructure. Unfortunately, they see us as the "government" that failed to provide either. Not until life returns to normal will the average Iraqi have much thought about government.

In other words, we are working in the wrong order. We want elections, security and infrastructure, while the Iraqis want security, infrastructure and then elections. My guess is that right now they don’t care what kind of government it is as long as it can make them feel safe in their homes and on the streets, and provide them with water, electricity and sanitary sewers.

And this brings up another point to keep in mind: As far as the average citizen is concerned, an authoritarian government can provide that infrastructure and security as well as leave people mostly alone in the areas that matter to them — family, jobs, recreation. It has often been said that the ideal form of government is a benign despot, since a despot can provide the services people want more efficiently than can a democracy, where everything has to be argued and compromised.

The trouble, of course, is finding a despot who is actually benign. The king of Jordan is one. When I was last in the country, the people seemed content, though there is no question about who is boss. Saudi Arabia, despite American complaints, seems to be a benign despotism. There seems to be no great unrest among the Saudi people as a whole, or in Kuwait or Syria, for that matter. Furthermore, no government in the Middle East was or is a threat to the United States. Our enemies are individuals outside of government.

People will oppose a despot if he is unnecessarily cruel and intrusive, or if he allows the country’s economy and infrastructure to collapse. But if he limits his punishment to people actively opposing him and otherwise runs a decent country, most people will be content.

The president is simply wrong. What most of the world’s people want is not democracy; they want security, a decent economy and a chance to prosper. Foreigners don’t come to our country to vote; they come to find work and economic opportunities. We would do better to try to develop entrepreneurs and millionaires in Iraq rather than politicians.

Despite the presence of oil in a few countries, there is a great deal of poverty in the Middle East, and geography is as much to blame as politics. Much of the land is desert or extremely arid. The first time I flew over the area, it reminded me of the surface of the moon. Water is in shorter supply and therefore more precious than oil.

As usual, our main focus is on governments that can sign contracts with corporations and buy American military machines, but it should be on the people. Most of them don’t like us for the very sensible reason that about the only thing U.S. foreign policy has done for them is to increase their misery.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.