Not everyone wants what we're offering

The Baltimore Sun

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan -- The U.S. government faces extremely difficult questions as the wars it wages in Iraq and Afghanistan become more costly in lives, material and time. While political pundits debate the nature of the wars' causes and consequences, the positives and negatives of abandoning the fight, or the strain the conflicts pose for the U.S. economy, two questions remain conspicuously absent.

First, what is the U.S. fighting for? Ostensibly, everyone knows the answer: The U.S. is fighting for democracy and its corollary, freedom. However, like the word peace, democracy and freedom are broad, subjective and ill defined, generating visceral reactions rather than clear, rational explanations.

Since Americans understand democracy to mean something good or pure, claiming to fight for it always generates support (more support than, say, fighting to maintain traditional power structures, to control trade routes and coaling stations, or to placate energy-rich allies). Therefore, to suggest the U.S. fights for anything but democracy, freedom and peace is un-American and borderline treasonous. All schoolchildren are taught that the U.S. struggled in its Revolution to create a government that derived its "just powers from the consent of the governed," fought its Civil War to ensure "that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth," and participated in two World Wars to "make the world safe for democracy."

But do people in the nations the U.S. expends so much life and national treasure on really want American-style democracy? This question is even more rarely addressed than the first. But it too is self-evident, since everybody wants democracy.

Or do they? From a Western, or particularly American, perspective, it is hard to believe that the world's citizens could want any other form of government - unless they, of course, are Islamic terrorists, fascists, communists or, even worse, Islamo-commi-fascists. Yet might it be possible to reject democracy and not be a terrorist, fascist or communist?

Here in Tajikistan, a nation ravaged by a cruel and devastating civil war upon the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, many average, peace-loving, rational citizens are not too keen on opening the current political environment to democratic debate. Perhaps this is because nearly 60,000 people in this nation of 6 million were killed as rival factions slugged it out in a post-Soviet battle for power. What many here want much more than democracy is food, jobs and decent education - needs that democracy is not guaranteed to meet.

Americans have a difficult time understanding that concerns about hunger, disease and stability often trump ideal notions about democracy. Therefore, it was hard for me at first to accept my Dushanbe host family's admiration for regional strongman Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, who refers to himself as "Turkmenbashi," or the father of all Turkmen.

The U.S. government and media constantly (though inconsistently) reinforce for us which tyrants we should praise and which we should despise. Mr. Niyazov is not counted among the laudable, and so the conditioned current reaction to any praise of Mr. Niyazov is disgust and disbelief. However, for a Pervez Musharraf or a Hosni Mubarak, we reserve sincere thanks, and we believe government proclamations and media reports that these leaders have a popular mandate to rule. Why some leaders are tyrants and others not is explained for us by such illuminati as the infallible President Bush, the indefatigable Donald H. Rumsfeld or the intrepid Condoleezza Rice.

When one hears praise for current Central Asian strongmen such as "Turkmenbashi" or their ideological forefathers, Lenin and Stalin, it is right to be appalled. But it is also right to consider why citizens might be nostalgic for the days of order and stability. Unfortunately, the unquestionable though vague term democracy limits much important debate and precludes any understanding of the people the U.S. attempts to bring representative government to.

Of course, Tajikistan was not better off under the Soviets, and Turkmenistan is not a Central Asian utopia. To suggest Iraq and Afghanistan were more stable under Saddam Hussein or the Taliban may upset the countless Americans whose family members have given their lives to topple those regimes, but it is undeniable that average citizens lived in relative peace under these totalitarians and did not face the prospect of being killed by stray U.S. bombs (President Bill Clinton's impetuous 1998 attack on Afghanistan and frequent U.S. and British bombing raids on Mr. Hussein's Iraq excluded).

Therefore, the question of whether wars to bestow democracy are worth the death, destruction and debt they bring, or if democracy is in fact the best form of government for all nations, needs to be discussed. A debate in the United States about the nature and meaning of our own democracy and the brand we endeavor to export would be a good place to start.

Dana E. Abizaid is a U.S. National Security Program fellow doing research in Tajikistan. His e-mail is

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