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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

November 24, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 156




Margot Patterson Democracy: America's secular religion

By Margot Patterson, NCR opinion editor

I will announce right now that I am not a sprinter. If I ran, which I don't, I'd be a marathoner. But in general I concur with whoever it was who said, "I never walk when I can stand; I never stand when I can sit; I never sit when I can lie down." My mother once referred to me as the female Oblomov, referring to the Russian novel by Goncharov of a man who spent his life in bed in a state of near-total sloth. Indolence was his passion, if Oblomov could be said to have a passion. Passion requires energy, and Oblomov was pathologically short on vitality. At one point he meets a girl who prompts him to get out of bed, but then the love affair goes sour, and he returns.

All this is by way of saying I don't do short and snappy. This "Today's Take" business is not my forte given that constitutionally it's hard for me to get going, and when I do get going it's hard for me to stop. Only 400 to 600 words, I'm told. But by the time you're at 400, I figure you might as well write 2,000, which I'm also told is way too long for today's reader.

This is a long way (I did warn you) of getting into my subject, which is President's Bush's embrace of democratization as a goal of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. I write about this in the article "Bush sets new course in the Mideast," which appears in the Nov. 28 issue of NCR. Bush made a speech Nov. 6 that repudiated 60 years of U.S. policy, in which democracy and human rights took a back seat to U.S. interests in the region, namely oil, oil and Israel. In my article, various Mideast scholars react to the speech, assess the state of our democratization efforts in Iraq -- poor -- and spell out the formidable obstacles to success.

Here are some of the comments that didn't make it into the longer article.

William B. Quandt, a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia and a member of the National Security Council under Carter and Reagan, laid it on the line.

"Iraq is a hard case for democracy," Quandt said. "If you were going to look around for a country to bring democracy to in the Middle East, you wouldn't start with Iraq. From the beginning of Iraq's independence, power has been lodged with the Sunnis. Sixty-seven percent of the country has been made up of Shias and they have never had a significant role in the running of the country. We're taking a country where the Shias have never been in the top position, and we're hoping that the Sunnis will peacefully step back and take a second position. That's tough anywhere."

Mary Ann Tetreault, a professor of international affairs at Trinity University in Texas, was equally discouraging when she spoke of changes here at home that will affect democracy in countries abroad. In the past educational exchange has been a key way the United States encouraged democracy. Young people from other countries came here for college and they experienced first-hand the open society that we say we want them to have in their own country. Since Sept. 11, the United States has made this exchange impossible for many students from Middle Eastern countries, which Tetreault and some other scholars consider unfortunate.

" 'Democratic values' is not just about holding elections. It's about political participation, about being able to express your views in public, of having a system that tries not to discriminate against minority groups. Educational exchange is problematic right now because we are discriminating against people from this region, but this is a very key long-range democratizing measure," Tetreault said.

Like other scholars interviewed, Tetreault praised Bush's words, even if she had reservations about how well they would be implemented.

Ironically, Tetreault said our credibility in the Middle East is so low right now that Bush's speech may be used by both supporters and opponents of democracy in the region..

"I think many people in the Middle East are very eager to have support for their efforts and have their efforts recognized by the United States," Tetreault said. "By the same token, people who don't want to see this kind of opening can take the president's speech as 'The Americans are saying we should do this and that and we know the Americans aren't acting in our interests and so we should be resisting it.' Our status and stature have gone down so drastically within this region over the last couple of years, you wonder what the fallout is going to be of this speech."

Tetreault and Quandt had other things to say, and it's these other statements that appear in the Nov. 28 article, "Bush sets new course in the Mideast." But what I've quoted here seemed worth discussing. They left me thinking about idealism and America, and the bad faith that seems to dog our best intentions.

Democracy is Americans' secular religion. Most of us believe in its efficacy and value far more than we do, say, Christianity, Unitarianism or Buddhism, and we preach it with a passion that we would find unbecoming in a missionary. When it comes to religion, we are pluralists, willing to concede value to other faith traditions; when it comes to democracy, we are crusaders conscious of the one true faith.

Like most half-hearted, not-totally-selfless idealists, we are also hypocrites, which most people in the Middle East are keenly aware of.

Our new commitment to democracy in the Middle East -- is it a sincere conversion to the cause we say America is all about, or just a way of hammering Syria and Iran? Will we chide Egypt and Israel about their abuses of human freedom, or will we continue to think that our friends in the region don't need to be democrats but our enemies do. In the article in NCR Nov. 28, Ian Lustick, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, reports that at the behest of the United States, democracy in Jordan has actually deteriorated in the last two years.

I'd like to think Bush's speech means that U.S. policy in the Mideast will change, but I'm skeptical. Radical conversions are rare in life, and when it comes to living our ideals most of us are Oblomovs of one degree or another. Presented with a large and obvious problem, we may in time summon up the energy to name it. We rise, prepared to tackle it, and then retreat.

Margot Patterson is NCR opinion editor. She can be reached at

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