08/16/2006 12:46 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Freedom Doesn't Have to Be Democracy

One of the honorable things about our foreign policy right now is that the U.S. wants to see democracy grow around the world. It may be the only thing we're admired for, however grudgingly. The American public has soured on democracy in Iraq, however, for several reasons. A. They don't seem ready for it. B. It has cost too much in lives to bring it to them. C. The Iraqi power elite may turn out in the end to be sectarian Shi'ites, as in Iran, making democracy a cover for Islamic extremism.

Democracy is such a sacred ideal that it has taken three years to see these facts clearly. Only now are people saying that maybe Iraq, or perhaps the entire Middle East, isn't where democracy belongs. The rationale of "they aren't ready for it" is growing, and therefore the reactionary royal families and iron-fisted mullahs are back in the saddle.

Does democracy have to be equated with freedom? I think all people want freedom, and freedom can come by degrees. Can't there be a middle ground between dictatorship and the kind of free elections that bring groups like Hamas and Hezbollah into power? The U.N. could supervise elections and include a proviso that no hate or terrorist groups are allowed to be on the ballot. Repressive governments could be pressured to give up their power in stages, so that democratic institutions will grow slowly. International commissions could evaluate the best way for democracy to be nurtured on a country-by-country basis.

In other words, there's a lot of wiggle room that we need to explore. We shouldn't give up on freedom, which every society is ready for, even if by slow degrees. The reality is that oppressed people are hungering for the end of oppression, not some abstract form of constitutional government. We've lost sight of the humanitarian benefits of freedom. For example, the neo-conservatives took control of the word 'democracy,' which means that if you support democratic change in the Middle East, you are automatically seen as pro-war and a bad liberal.

One hopes that the word can be taken back, but even if democracy remains in the conservative camp for the time being, freedom shouldn't. Indeed, conservatives have a bad instinct for wanting to curb civil liberties here at home under the guise of promoting security. While all of us are learning sad lessons about bringing democracy to the Middle East in the wrong way, it's also time to re-educate ourselves about what freedom actually means. If we do that, we can gradually build up the image of America abroad and cleanse ourselves of this mistaken belief that everybody has to accept democracy on our terms, or else.