A Democrat against democracy? Kerry's words undercut freedom and U.S. security

Charleston Daily Mail by Thomas O. Melia and Jennifer L. Windsor
Sen. John Kerry said last month that promotion of democracy and human rights would not top the list of "priority concerns" his administration would highlight in dealing with critical countries such as Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and China.

He said traditional national security concerns - containment of nuclear weapons, the fight against terrorism, and so on - need to be addressed more urgently.

This week he went further, withdrawing his earlier support for the Varela Project - a civic initiative in Cuba that has gathered 30,000 signatures on a petition calling for a referendum on whether to hold genuine elections.

Because scores of those involved have been incarcerated, Kerry said this effort has "brought down the hammer in a way that I think wound up being counter-productive."

Kerry's statement must have been enormously deflating to the many Cubans who have gone to prison for supporting this initiative.

Dictators everywhere were surely heartened by Kerry's suggestion that peaceful political action to open a closed society, rather than the repressive measures that followed, would be labeled "counter-productive" by one of the two Americans most likely to be president at this time next year.

It takes nothing away from Kerry's long advocacy of human rights and democratic values over the years, a record that speaks for itself, to say this is a curious way indeed to distinguish himself from President Bush.

The promotion of democracy has emerged as an area of bipartisan consensus, a rarity in this day and age. Most Democrats and Republicans alike now agree that a more democratic world would perforce be a more secure and prosperous world.

The challenge for Kerry is to articulate how he might improve on the present administration's policies in this regard and build on its accomplishments, which are not trifling, while avoiding some of the missteps, which are not insignificant.

It is unfortunate that Iraq has become for many people a test of whether the United States can or ought to be promoting democracy at all. It is atypical, and obscures many other efforts under way, in dozens of countries, and the ways that the U.S. can and does help.

Bush's Millennium Challenge Account makes political reform a key criterion poor countries need to meet to qualify for $ 1 billion in new foreign assistance. Under his administration, the State Department and USAID now manage more than $ 1 billion in democratic reform programs and he has proposed doubling the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy.

The president speaks clearly and consistently about political reform in the Middle East, and it matters when an American president does so.

These Bush policies are not departures from the work of previous administrations; they build on a quarter century of efforts within both parties to increase emphasis on democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy.

Jimmy Carter's focus on human rights cases was followed by Ronald Reagan's proposal of the National Endowment for Democracy, which supported indigenous efforts peacefully to replace dictators previously supported by the United States, including Marcos in the Philippines and Pinochet in Chile.

Both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton also made democracy promotion a standard part of the tool kit of American diplomacy and U.S. foreign assistance.

For Kerry to shy away from the cause of human liberty now, in order to distinguish himself from the Bush team's overstatements about how easy democracy would come to Iraq, would be a terrible retrogression.

To suggest that democracy promotion is inconsistent with bolstering American security, rather than mutually reinforcing, is wrong.

Over the past quarter century, the number of free countries in the world has grown from 43 to 88. While the peoples of those countries are the main authors of this progress, the United States has consistently supported and enabled these advances, regardless of which party controlled the White House.

Kerry needs to present the path better taken; describe a more sophisticated strategy for democratization in critical places where the autocratic status quo appears to be a road to ruin - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Palestine perhaps being the most conspicuous.

Now that courageous Cubans are trying peacefully to replace Castro through an electoral process - an uphill effort the government has been attacking relentlessly - the least Americans can do is to continue to show solidarity.

Kerry might take note that the European Union has honored Oswaldo Paya, the leader of the Varela Project, which speaks to the potential for greater trans-Atlantic cooperation in supporting democratic activists worldwide.

Kerry's recent remarks may not reflect the entirety of his thinking on this complex issue. We hope it is his intention, if elected, to enhance rather than diminish the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad.

Too many democrats around the world, in prison or on the run, are counting on America to continue to do the right thing.

Thomas Melia, director of research at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, was vice president of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, was director of USAID's Center for Democracy and Governance during the Clinton Administration.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

Join us on Facebook and Twitter (freedomhouse). Stay up to date with Freedom House’s latest news and events by signing up for our newsletter.