U.S. Must Refocus Democracy Building

The past few weeks have seen massive voter turnouts at two free, fair and largely peaceful elections. Yet neither election led to an inspiring outcome. Only muted hopefulness greeted Haiti’s election, while the results of the Palestinian elections were outright alarming.

These two votes highlight the changes that the Bush administration must make to its democracy-building efforts.

In both cases, the problem is an anti-democratic aspect of this policy. In Haiti, the United States’ long focus on what type of leader wins has undermined the creation of a stable democracy. The same emphasis in the Palestinian territories threatens to result in similar instability.

If the United States wishes to help build lasting democracies, it must trade its current focus on influencing outcomes for the long-term work of building democratic institutions, no matter who controls these governments in the short term.

In the 16 years since Haiti’s first free and democratic elections, after the end of the Duvalier regime, violence, corruption and poverty have abounded, while democracy has languished. Only one president has stayed in office for his entire term. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was twice elected and twice deposed by force.

The United States has given aid and attention but focused too little of it on building critical democratic institutions and too much on favoring certain parties and people. Indeed, despite official policy to the contrary, the Bush administration reportedly funded an organization that undermined the democratically elected Aristide in the months before he was forced into exile and the country fell into chaos.

Sixteen years after Haiti’s first hopeful elections, last week’s vote was not a normal event but instead only another flickering of hope against the odds that this time, things will be different.

In the Middle East, the United States has trumpeted its support for elections, while keeping quiet its work favoring a particular outcome. As reported in the Washington Post, the U.S. spent close to $2 million in anonymous funding of Palestinian Authority activities in the days before the election in order to bolster support for the sitting government.

The short-sighted U.S. strategy of supporting the least bad option at the moment, even if woefully corrupt and out of touch, invites contempt from those whose freedom it so stridently champions and from much of the international community. The United States emerges tainted, diminishing the morality of purpose, which has, for decades, been an indispensable element of the nation’s foreign policy toolbox.

The U.S. has tarnished this tool in the past by undermining democratically elected governments — in places such as Chile and Iran — that were not aligned with policy interests. But it is particularly important now, when much of the administration’s agenda revolves around building democracies, to prioritize long-term change in the direction of the United States’ democratic principles over short-term alignment to its current needs.

The administration’s shortsighted approach was readily apparent in its approach to the Palestinian Authority. Fatah, the party of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, was widely recognized as corrupt and unable to provide basic services, despite receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid.

Had the administration focused more on how U.S. aid was (or was not) being used, Palestinians might have had greater faith that the United States was committed to improving their lives and not simply trying to prop up a politically friendly, corrupt government. That is, they might have believed the money was intended for more than influencing a political outcome.

Hamas also benefited from external funding, yet it managed to provide basic social services with some of that money. The administration’s surprise at support for those who improve voters’ lives — even if their other goals are repellent — indicates a lack of understanding of the needs of transitional communities.

The United States can and should pursue a different course. And it is not too late. The results of activities such as training journalists, supporting human rights monitors and helping to draft clear and workable laws may not be immediately apparent. But in the long run, institutions based on democratic principles and designed around local circumstances will be more likely than elections alone to result in strong democracies.

When the building blocks of public and private institutions and systems are allowed to flourish with the appropriate support, these emerging societies are more likely to support the same principles that Americans hold dear.

Attorney Julia Fromholz has advised human rights organizations in Cambodia and serves as a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.