Congress Shouldn’t Hinder Democracy With Mindless Partisanship

Posted March 8, 2005 at 1:09pm

This is a column about democracy and freedom. But first, it is about Tillie Fowler. What a loss! Fowler, a Florida Republican who died earlier this month, was a remarkable combination: a great Member of the House for eight years, a great public leader before and after her service, and a wonderful person. Like the late Rep. Bob Matsui (D-Calif.), whose tragic death at a near-identical early age preceded hers by two months, Fowler could be a fierce partisan, but she was first and foremost a patriot and an institutionalist. She had great integrity and followed the facts where they led. She was smart as hell.

[IMGCAP(1)] I had one big problem with Tillie: her pledge to limit her service in the House to four terms. She was on the fast track to a prominent leadership position, and at least four more years of service would have made the House a better place and its majority leadership a more sensible group. She thought long and hard about violating her term-limits pledge, but decided in the end (unlike several of her colleagues) that a promise was a promise. Tillie offered a case study of why term limits are a bad idea.

After she left Congress to join a law firm, she remained active in public service. I watched closely as she headed the commission that investigated the charges of sexual abuse at the Air Force Academy; it was a model of leadership. So too was her work in the House several years ago with Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) investigating sexual harassment in the Army, as well as her work on the panel looking into the allegations of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. With Tillie Fowler, you knew you would not get a cover-up, mealy mouthed excuses or unnecessary partisan divisions. She is truly a great loss, at a cruelly young age.

On to democracy. I was on my way to England a couple of weeks ago when I read a striking Washington Post column by David Ignatius about the turmoil in the Arab world. In it, he quoted Walid Jumblatt, the Druze patriarch in Lebanon who is not known as pro-American.

“‘It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq,’ explains Jumblatt. ‘I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world.’ Jumblatt says this spark of democratic revolt is spreading. ‘The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.’”

Wow. That column was followed shortly thereafter by the announcement by Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak that he would push for democratic elections in Egypt, and soon after that by the remarkable demonstrations by tens of thousands of Lebanese calling for Syria to get out of their country and let them govern themselves. And all of that had been preceded, of course, by remarkable elections in Afghanistan and the Palestinian Authority as well as Iraq, and the incredible uprising of people in the Ukraine to demand their rights as voters to overturn a Russian-dominated corrupt farce of an election count.

At a conference near Oxford, many Europeans and more than a few Americans absorbed the news about Lebanon and Egypt with what seemed almost to be disappointment — that if it is good news for President Bush or vindicates his Iraq plan, then it must be bad. That same attitude is present among some Congressional Democrats. It is stupid, politically and morally, particularly for Democrats who have always stood up for human rights and democracy.

I know that this phenomenon is nothing new. Some Congressional Republicans reacted the same way to President Bill Clinton when he intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo — if it is good for him, it is bad for us, whatever it means for the country. That included party leaders who regularly undercut the president as commander in chief. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now.

Whatever one’s views on the invasion of Iraq or its aftermath, and even if the outcomes have and will include severe and negative side effects, there can be no doubt that those elections in Iraq have contributed to some stunning and positive developments throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. It may well be the case that this dynamic would be less apparent if not for the conveniently timed death of Yasser Arafat. But the death of Arafat alone would not be cause for the delicious democratic turmoil gripping the Middle East and possibly spreading to many other parts of the world.

The outcomes are iffy, and many bad things may happen. (In one indication of the zig-zagging nature of progress in the region, hundreds of thousands of protesters on Tuesday filled the streets of Beirut, chanting anti-American slogans and demanding that Syrian troops remain in Lebanon.) But it is incumbent upon all Members of Congress to step up and do whatever they can to make the good things possible. The stakes are too high for the depressingly usual partisan and ideological bickering to consume this set of issues as well.

We need a Freedom and Democracy Caucus to take hold in Congress, ideally led by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). They can join with bipartisan-minded Members who have pushed for human rights and freedom, including Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) in the House, and Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the Senate, and push for passage of the Advance Democratic Values Act, which would enhance the U.S. role promoting democracy abroad by strengthening public diplomacy in our embassies, among other things. They can make sure that when the budget crunch comes over discretionary spending, spending on foreign aid, the Millennium Challenge Fund and public diplomacy are not reduced in the vicious, zero-sum game with other constituent-pleasing programs.

They can also make sure the administration follows through consistently on its own promises to expand freedom and democracy. One place to start is Zimbabwe, where another set of upcoming elections are likely to be subverted by Robert Mugabe, the thug who has long terrorized his own country. We need to aggressively step in and cajole Europeans and other African countries to intervene.

If the elections in Iraq do indeed turn out to be a new parallel to the fall of the Berlin Wall, we should all rejoice. In the meantime, Congress needs to step up to the plate and do whatever it can to make that dream a reality. Everybody in Congress.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.