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Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, is presently chairwoman of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, which promotes democracy globally. She spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels on Tuesday in Washington.

Nathan Gardels: There are democratic rumblings across the Arab world — the Palestinian elections, the Iraqi elections, the Saudi local elections (albeit men only), Egyptian President Mubarak’s announcement of multiparty elections, the Lebanese pro-democracy street protests that helped lead to the resignation of the pro-Syrian prime minister.

Is this the same historical process we’ve seen with the democratic wave in Eastern and Central Europe and later in Georgia and Ukraine?

Madeleine Albright: I have always believed we are all the same. People want to live in a state where they are able to make their own decisions. With the spread of information globally, there is a growing desire and support everywhere today for democracy. It has been in the air generally throughout the world since the 1980s — in South Korea and Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Central and Eastern Europe, in Latin America, in the former Soviet Union.

In that sense, yes, what is going on in the Arab world now is part of an overall wave. But it is not something that has just started. And there are various aspects that make it ebb and flow. Democracy was not invented in the last three years.

Indeed, one of the new problems, as we see in Russia and Latin America and even to some extent in Central and Eastern Europe, is "post-euphoric democracy." Democracy is not an event, it is a process. If democracy doesn’t deliver — if it doesn’t mean they can own their houses, do business and not go hungry — societies can backslide.

Gardels: Yet, certainly, the Bush foreign policy — the overthrow of Saddam and the fostering of Iraqi elections — has had an impact? For all the talk of democracy in the Middle East over the years, the logjam has only just been broken.

Albright: The answer is yes, and no. The truth is there were elections and democratic movements in the Middle East before this. The National Democratic Institute had many discussions earlier, for example, in Yemen, in Bahrain and among Palestinian moderates in Bethlehem. Yasser Arafat’s death was a very important part of what made Palestinian elections possible.

I was not for the war in Iraq. But I do think the elections there are very significant and a victory for the Iraqi people. President Bush can take credit for that. However, it is just the beginning of the story, and there are complications that arise from what the Bush administration has done.

I’ve just come back from the Arab world and one thing is very clear: They want support, but they don’t want to be told what to do in their reform, which is what many feel the administration’s Middle East Initiative tries to do. So, while many are encouraged by the elections in Iraq, they don’t want to be identified with an American plan.

It is a mixed picture. There is quite a lot of anti-Americanism as a result of the war, but at the same time a sense of jubilation about what the Iraqi people have done.

Gardels: If we are at the beginning of a new stage in the Middle East in terms of democratization, what are the hurdles ahead?

Albright: In Iraq, the purple fingers were remarkable. The Iraqi people must be congratulated. At the same time, it has been more than a month since the elections and no government has yet been formed. We’ve just seen the most violent day since the fall of Saddam, with more than 100 people killed in a car bombing south of Baghdad. The Iraqis need to put together a government, create a new constitution, hold a referendum on the constitution and have an election. That is a long and daunting process given the divisiveness within Iraq itself.

In Lebanon, it is remarkable that people are in the streets and there is a seeming unity between Christians and Muslims. But there is a subtext: They had a civil war. The sectarian divide continues. The situation is fluid. The question is how to get the Syrians out. Those I’ve talked to in Lebanon tell me a lot is going on behind the scenes of those incredible crowds.

Lebanon is very different, therefore, than Ukraine. The differences between eastern and western Ukraine pale in comparison to the divisions in Lebanon.

In Egypt, where I just was, there are many people who want democracy. At the moment, though, we have no idea what President Mubarak’s announcement really means because one of the more viable candidates of the opposition, Mr. (Ayman) Nour, is in jail! And the people around him have been beaten up pretty badly.

When there is a new political party, it is being clamped down upon. What is going on there is "managed opposition." Clearly Mubarak felt some pressure after Egypt was mentioned in President Bush’s State of the Union speech and took a step. But even the Bush administration is waiting to see what it really means.

I was also just in Saudi Arabia. I found it yeastier than I thought. There is a lot of ferment. I attended the Jeddah Economic Forum there. The women were separated from the men by a barrier so you couldn’t see them in the huge auditorium where the forum took place. What was hailed as the big step forward was that women were called upon for every other question. They would say, "And now, let’s hear from the ladies." And the "ladies" told the minister of labor quite clearly that they didn’t want the workplace to be separated anymore into facilities for men and women. The municipal elections in Saudi Arabia are a beginning.

It is hard to decide how much of this change has come from outside pressure, and how much from inside and below.

Gardels: Even given these hurdles and complications, would you say that the Bush administration’s "transformational" foreign policy is the right one for the Middle East at this historic moment?

Albright: It is the right policy for the United States to stand for democracy and freedom. We are an exceptional country. It was something I advocated. The problem is, at the moment, it has too much of an American stamp on it. Democracy is a universal value. There are other countries beside the U.S. who practice democracy.

You can’t impose democracy; that is an oxymoron. You have to nurture it and support it. The real question is how much of a backlash there will be against an American-imposed democracy.

I have spent a lot of time studying and being with Eastern European dissidents. They always appreciated being identified with the West and the United States. They wanted the light shone upon them in order to protect them.

In the Arab world, those who want democracy share our values in the sense that they believe people should be allowed to make their own choices. But to be identified with the U.S. is not a benefit for them.

That makes the U.S. role very different in promoting democracy in the Arab Middle East. There is not even a passive pro-Americanism. The hostility to America throughout the whole region is palpable.

So, while democratization is a fine American goal, it is viewed widely in the region as something that smacks of hegemony and not of indigenous choice. That troubles me.

Gardels: Your advice then to Condoleezza Rice, your successor as a woman secretary of state, would be: You are on the right side of history, but don’t overdo it?

Albright: Condi and I have discussed this often. You may know that my father was her professor. I have always believed in a moral, democratic foreign policy — you might ask her what she thought. And I have always thought it is absolutely right to talk to others about American values. But you have to be aware you can’t cram it down people’s throats.

(c) 2005, Global Viewpoint
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