Sometimes you get the real news only by reading between the headlines. Consider the New York Times front page, November 5. Top story: "Pakistan Rounds Up Musharraf's Political Foes." Below it: "U.S. Is Likely To Continue Aid to Pakistan."
The headline that told the most important news jumped out from between those two printed headlines. Although it remained unwritten, you could see it in bold letters: "Bush Administration Supports Dictator, Betrays Commitment to Democracy." In case you missed the point, between the two headlines the Times put a haunting photo of two Musharraf foes caged behind bars.
Remember the president's stirring inaugural address of 2005: "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. ... All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
Nice words. But go tell it to the Pakistanis, whose democracy movement will now be suppressed with weapons sent and paid for by us, the American taxpayers. While you're at it, go tell it to the Egyptians, or the Uzbeks, or the Palestinians, or the Nigerians, or the Saudis, or the inhabitants of all the other countries where the administration has betrayed its promise to promote democracy.
To be fair, we were warned. The day after inauguration day, 2005, administration officials called journalists in to assure them that Bush's words should not be taken literally. There would be no rush to support democracy when a "realistic" need to protect U.S. interests was at stake. The president was talking about a long-range goal, they said, not an actual policy we should expect him to follow.
Now the White House doesn't have to call in the press. They got the message. So the mainstream media don't ask the president or his aides to justify a policy diametrically opposed to the one he promised less than three years ago. Journalists and pundits take it as a given that we have no choice. We "must" support Musharraf because he is a "necessary(or loyal, or indispensable, or whatever adjective you like) ally in the war on terrorism."
These journalists and pundits are not all Republicans. The message is bipartisan. Democratic candidates Clinton, Obama, and Edwards all denounce the Bush administration (quite rightly) for handling Pakistan ineptly. But all have named Pakistan as a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism. None are calling for a cut-off of U.S. military aid.
In this regard the Democratic candidates are following their party's tradition. Franklin D. Roosevelt justified a U.S. alliance with Stalin by citing a favorite saying: "You can cross a bridge with the devil-until you reach the other side." When the Democrats turned Stalin into the enemy, they followed FDR's dictum, except that they made right-wing rather than communist totalitarians the devils they would walk with hand in hand. Republicans merely followed the path the Democrats had laid out.
Now "terrorists" have replaced "communists." But the principle remains the same. Democracy is the American ideal. Yet when America's enemies threaten, democracy goes onto the back burner. Sorry, all you judges, lawyers, journalists, and other middle-class professionals who are being bloodied by Musharraf's thug police. You'll just have to wait. America's "national security" comes first -- yes, "national security," that favorite catch-all codeword for the interests of the American empire. And if you are being tortured -- well, the pain probably doesn't reach the threshold of organ failure or impending death, so legally speaking the U.S. does not call it torture.
Before we denounce the obvious hypocrisy, though, let's get some historical context. Why does the praise of democracy spring so readily and constantly to our leaders' lips? Why did Jefferson and Madison praise it even more eloquently? Historically, democracy was born as the Siamese twin of capitalism. The idea of democracy allowed the newly emerging capitalist bourgeoisie to seize power from the kings and landed aristocracy.
The ascendant bourgeoisie soon discovered that extending basic democratic rights to the masses made a lot of sense. Democracy gave those masses a stake in the stability of the state and its capitalist economy. People who can vote, speak freely, and have basic rights guaranteed are far less likely to revolt. And they are more likely to work hard within the prevailing system. As long as the moneyed interests still held most of the levers of power, what harm could democracy do? In a simple cost-benefit analysis, representative republican democracy was clearly the political system that worked best for capitalism.
It still is. So the U.S. political elite, the guardians of the global corporate capitalist system, can be quite sincere when they promise their fidelity to the ideal of democracy. Eventually they probably would like to see democracy prevail everywhere -- as long as it is American-style democracy, where the victor in every election is the best candidate money can buy.
Now, in places that harbor no real threat to the reign of corporate capitalism, democracy is a useful tool to advance its global march. So the elite seriously promote it. And they use the word democracy as a convenient shorthand for whatever government they want to support, for any reason. That's why Republicans and Democrats alike tell us that Musharraf really intends to move Pakistan toward democracy, even if there is now a slight delay in the proceedings.
But wherever there is a significant threat to the forces of globalization, they tell us democracy is a luxury that we just can't afford right now. I mean, let's be "realistic."
The greatest outrage here is not the hypocrisy of the administration, though hypocrisy aplenty there is. The greatest outrage is the way the bipartisan elite treat democracy as merely a useful weapon in the long-term battle to perpetuate the pax Americana. When democracy works to that end, fine. When it doesn't, we'll turn to dictatorship and send more guns to batter democracy down. Democracy and dictatorship become just two different kinds of weapons in the battle to suppress the genuine will and needs of the people.
A commitment to democracy binds the elite to nothing in particular. The freedom they seem to prize above all is the freedom to promote virtually any policy in the name of democracy. Whenever the banner of democracy is unfurled, only one thing is for certain. There will always be a dangerous "enemy" in sight, a threat to our "national security." Then the "realistic" concern for our national interest takes precedence, and democracy will just have to wait.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.