MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
(Soundbite of music)
President FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: That we oppose imperialism.
Unidentified Man #1: Let's not call it democracy.
Unidentified Man #2: Let's say we fight jihadists.
Unidentified Man #3: Islamic fascism.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're caught in a war on terror.
SIEGEL: In the final part of our series on the language of the war on terror, the term democracy. The spread of it has become the central part of the Bush administration's foreign policy, but what exactly makes a country democratic?
NPR's Guy Raz reports on the term democracy and what it means at home and abroad.
GUY RAZ: Encyclopedia Britannica used to have an educational film division -short movies, mostly for classrooms - and one of the films they produced was called Despotism. It was made in 1946 and included a series of Orwellian skits explaining, for example, how -
(Soundbite of film, "Despotism")
Unidentified Man #4: Democracy can ebb away in communities whose citizens allow power to become concentrated in the hands of bosses.
Unidentified Man #5: What I say go, see? I'm the law around here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: The film underscores the importance of free elections, that voting and democracy go hand in hand. And this understanding of democracy is a pervasive one in America.
Recently, I sat on the steps outside the National Archives, where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are stored. I was there to ask visitors what is democracy? And everyone I spoke to said something along the lines of -
Ms. CATHERINE DEEP: The right to vote and take charge of your government.
Mr. GARY SHROVE: You get to decide who's in office. If you don't like him, you vote him out.
Ms. LINDA STEINER: Getting out to vote, I think
Mr. DENNIS PAYNE: Democracy is our freedom to basically elect our leaders.
RAZ: That was Catherine Deep, Gary Shrove, Linda Steiner and Dennis Payne, all recent visitors to Washington's National Archives. Now not too far from the archives, at the Capitol Building, President Bush in his second inaugural addressed announced that it's -
President BUSH: - the policy of the United States to 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.
RAZ: And thus began an experiment geared mainly towards the Middle East in promoting democracy, and part one of that experiment was based on the belief that -
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: - the way forward must continue to include democratic elections.
RAZ: So they were held in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Palestinian territories, all at the behest of Washington. Yet according to Islamic scholar Khaled Abu el-Fadl -
Mr. KHALED ABU EL-FADL (Islamic Scholar): - the vast majority of Muslims don't buy the claim that we are furthering democracy.
RAZ: Why? Well, consider the Palestinian Parliamentary elections last January. They were free, fair, open - by all accounts democratic. But the militant Islamist group Hamas won, a group the State Department considers a terrorist organization, and under U.S. diplomatic protocol, contact with Hamas is banned. So the message, at least for Palestinians, says Khaled Abu el-Fadl was -
Mr. ABU EL-FADL: - the people you guys have got to choose are people that we must like.
RAZ: And as the University of Chicago's Francois Meltzer points out -
Professor FRANCOIS MELTZER (University of Chicago): - if the definition of democracy is free elections and free choice, then there's a problem with deciding that you then judge that choice and make a decision as to whether or not it's okay.
RAZ: And free choice, especially in the Middle East today, is one that is largely between the entrenched nationalists and the dissident Islamists.
Professor FRANCIS FUKUYAMA (Johns Hopkins University): The problem, I think, in an area like the Middle East is that you have Islamist parties that are actually quite democratic.
RAZ: This is Johns Hopkins professor Francis Fukuyama.
Professor FUKUYAMA: They're willing to stand for elections and they win elections, but they have a rather intolerant interpretation of Islam that doesn't allow for political pluralism and doesn't get at the liberal part of liberal democracy.
RAZ: Which historian Victor Davis Hanson says raises the question -
Mr. VICTOR DAVIS HANSON (Historian): Do you encourage democracy, even though a illiberal party may take power and have one vote, one time?
Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Speaker of the House): It's actually a mistake to talk only about democracy as a vote.
RAZ: This is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He says the Bush administration's biggest mistake in democracy promotion is not explaining what it means, that democracy isn't just about elections, but -
Mr. GINGRICH: - the rule of law, independent judges, the right of free speech, the ability to fire those to whom you loan power and private property. Unless you have all five of those in place, you in fact don't have any kind of viable democracy.
RAZ: Now, one of the curious things about democracy is that nearly every country in the world claims to have some form of it, whether it's Iran under President Ahmadinejad.
President MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Iran): (Speaking foreign language)
RAZ: Or Cuba under Castro.
President FIDEL CASTRO (Cuba): (Speaking foreign language)
RAZ: Even North Korea is called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In fact, only ten countries in the world do not make any democratic pretensions, and the overwhelming majority of countries hold some form of what they consider democratic elections, except that -
Father JOHN NEUHAUS (Philosopher): Democracy, before it is a political system, before it is a policy, has to be a sentiment, a pervasive sentiment.
RAZ: This is philosopher Father Richard John Neuhaus. He says democracy has to be a culture -
Father NEUHAUS: - in which people not only tolerate but see morally and even religiously the value and the imperative of living together in a political structure that is not indifferent to differences.
RAZ: Now, a little more than a year ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told an audience in Cairo that -
Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (United States Secretary of State) For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East.
RAZ: The speech was a kind of acknowledgement of past American sins. The United States has sponsored some nasty regimes and even a few coup d'etats. So Rice was signaling a fresh start, the end of American real politick, or was she?
Colonel ANDREW BACEVICH (Retired, Army): To talk about an American mission to spread democracy around the world is to say something that's nice.
RAZ: This is former Army Colonel and now academic Andrew Bacevich.
Colonel BACEVICH: Let's not call it democracy. Let's call it the American way of life. U.S. foreign policy supports the spread of democracy to the extent, and only to the extent, that the spread of democracy is directly supportive of other U.S. interests.
RAZ: Things like trade agreements, he says, and strategic alliances, but also the very real desire for stability. Again, here's Newt Gingrich.
Mr. GINGRICH: In the case of the Muslim world, I think there's an objective reason, which is that a great deal of the anger which gets directed at us is actually anger diverted from dictatorships. Open societies under the rule of law, where people are prosperous, are less likely to have terrorism than places that have greater tension and much greater pressure.
RAZ: The challenge, of course, is figuring out how to make it all work. There is no democracy template, no one size fits all, no guarantee that it works everywhere. But democracy, said Winston Churchill, is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.
Guy Raz, NPR News.
SIEGEL: You can listen to the rest of Guy Raz's series on the political language of our times at our Web site, NPR.org.
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