07/31/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

From Honduras to Iran: Democratic Setbacks

Democracy is taking a beating. The Honduran military has sent its leftist president into exile. The Iranian government is suppressing the Green Revolution. China arrested prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo. And Governor Mark Sanford decided that he could best serve the interests of his South Carolinian constituents by hightailing it after his Argentinean mistress.

So, what happened to the inevitable wave of democracy reaching every shore? After "people power" dislodged tyrants in the Philippines, South Africa, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, pundits predicted that democracy would soon spread around the world as universally as Coca-Cola and iPods. Opinion-makers on the left celebrated the victories of self-determination as a key legacy of the Enlightenment. Opinion-makers on the right embraced the neo-conservatives' "democracy promotion" tactics. Even normally pessimistic realists in the center, who prefer stability to the unpredictability of regime change from below, began to sing paeans to democratization.

Yes, you could find a few people still willing to embrace Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. But these leaders seemed like holdouts from another age about to be toppled by modern democracy's more nimble Tweeters and bloggers. It was just a matter of time.

Someone forgot to break this news to the ruling elite in Tehran. After the initial huge outpouring of protest in Iran following the disputed presidential election results, the militia and riot police have moved quickly to break up demonstrations and arrested hundreds. Don't expect the partial recount of votes to produce much of anything. More effective would be a challenge from billionaire pistachio merchant and former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has sharply criticized the government's handling of the elections and, rumor has it, has decamped to Qom to intrigue with the clerics there.

The more conspiratorially minded see the hand of the United States behind the uprising in Iran. The CIA, which has a track record from 1953, is likely skulking around over there. The U.S. government has made no bones about its dislike of Ahmadinejad. And the Bush administration funded various groups inside Iran bent on regime change.

This connecting of the dots is hogwash, writes Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst Stephen Zunes. "There is something profoundly ethnocentric in arguing that civil insurrections and other pro-democracy campaigns have to be launched from Washington and that Iranians (like Eastern Europeans) are incapable of organizing a popular movement on their own," he writes in Iran"s Do-It-Yourself Revolution.

Given the U.S. track record in Iran and the indigenous nature of the current uprising, the Obama administration can best promote change in Iran by not actively promoting change. Writes FPIF contributor Max Burns, "Openly providing support to Mousavi supporters as some hawks advocate would doom the entire movement, which the Obama administration keenly understands. A strong American hand in Iranian affairs will be counterproductive and dangerously naïve. Ahmadinejad's regime thrives on just such acts as a premise for further isolation. World criticism counterintuitively strengthens the paranoia of Ahmadinejad's claims."

We progressives tend to believe that things get better over time. As Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." The election of Barack Obama confirms that a measure of justice comes to those who struggle for it. But the racial wealth divide in this country remains as galling as ever. So how long must we wait? After all, as the considerably less utopian thinker John Maynard Keynes once said, "in the long run, we are all dead."

So which will come first for the world: death or democracy? Perhaps, if we somehow avoid rising waters, declining economies, and the ravages of sectarianism, we will discover at long last that the arc of the universe bends toward democracy. But, as Mark Sanford's antics indicate, the democracy we get might only be the democracy we deserve.

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus, where you can read the full post.

To subscribe to FPIF's e-zine World Beat, click here.