Suppose that Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Canada and announced that the United States was retreating from its principles of freedom since the World Trade Center attack. The United States, he might have said, has denied due process of law to some American citizens. It has established a concentration camp in Cuba. It has tortured prisoners, indeed often and in many places. It denies aliens the right to trial by jury -- indeed, it acts like the only ones who have Mr. Jefferson's inalienable rights are American citizens, and not always.
Then he says, while I'm at it, there are a lot of flaws in your democracy. You certainly don't think your Electoral College is democratic, do you? Neither is your Senate, with its disproportionate representation of smaller states. Rhode Island is as big as California? Gimme a break!
And what about your gerrymandered congressional districts (presumably he knows about Elbridge Gerry) which guarantees the re-election of incumbents, especially if they are conservative Republicans? What about Tom DeLay's open theft of Democratic congressional districts in Texas? Is your House of Representatives all that democratic?
And all the capitalist dollars that are poured into your campaigns? And the false attack ads aimed at the character of an opponent? And the endless spinning of the truth so that it no longer means anything? Would Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Madison approve of that?
How dare, he might conclude, the American pot call the Russian Samovar black?
It is not my intention to say that Russia is more democratic than the United States. Patently it is not. Nor do I propose to argue that American democracy is far from perfect. Patently it is far from perfect. Rather, I am suggesting that for President Bush to come to the edge of Russia (Slovakia) and preach about democracy to Putin is rude, crude and undiplomatic. It is an insult to Putin and to Russia and to the Russian people.
It is also hypocrisy.
Putin seems by all accounts to be popular with his people. He is the strong leader that Russians have always wanted, most recently after the drunken confusion of Boris Yeltsin. The Russians show little inclination to imitate their neighbors in Ukraine. The Gulag is over, the rule of law is aborning. Russia has a long way to go, but it is struggling, however imperfectly, with the development of its own brand of democracy -- and without much of an internal historical model to imitate.
Did Bush lecture the Germans and the French about their treatment of Muslims? Did he lecture the English about their continued failures in Northern Ireland? Hardly. He understood--or the people around him did--that it was inappropriate for him to intervene in the domestic problems of other countries. What made him think it was appropriate to lecture Russia like it was a spoiled and obstreperous schoolchild about its failings?
Did he expect Putin to accept his insult and promise to do better? Did he think that the Russian people would say that it was time for the Russian leadership to shape up in response to the criticism of an American president? What good would come of his criticism? Why did he bother to make such a big deal out of it?
The answer is that his conservative base expected, indeed demanded that he criticize Putin. Probably Karl Rove, his gray eminence, insisted that he do it. Conservative Republicans don't really believe that Russia has changed. They're waiting for Russia to renew the Cold War. They expect a Republican president to be ''tough'' with the Russians. Russians are still the bad guys, and Bush should ''crack down'' on them. For Bush, lecturing Putin on the failures of Russian democracy is a no-lose situation. He doesn't lose any votes in Russia and solidifies some votes in the United States. He enhances his cowboy image in Europe, but what's wrong with that
Why not be rude and crude and patronizing? Why not act like an evangelical minister preaching to South American heathens? Why not act like the campus evangelist who tells Catholics that they are not Christian? Why not act like a Catholic bishop refusing the sacraments to a political candidate?