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Secretary Clinton and 'Real Democracy' in the Middle East

“The era of Big Government is over!”

I could not get President Bill Clinton’s famous declaration out of my mind this morning as I read the speech Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave in Egypt yesterday.

Very simply, Mrs. Clinton’s discussion of the lofty -- and probably unattainable -- goal of democratizing the Muslim Middle East is the best ever delivered by a senior American government official.

I can’t shake her husband’s speech, though.

Back in 1996, when he made his succinct, imperative assertion about the need to rein in Leviathan, we knew he didn’t mean a word of it. We’ve had galloping runaway government ever since. I don’t mean to suggest that that is Clinton’s doing, by the way; Democrats are worse than Republicans on this, but Big Government is very much a bipartisan disease. For present purposes, though, my point is that the Clintons, who are both extraordinarily able, have a penchant for saying exactly what needs to be said ... while not meaning a word of it.

At long last, in Secretary Clinton’s telling, it has dawned on the State Department that the culture of democracy -- the Western liberty culture -- is by leaps and bounds more essential than democracy’s procedural elements, such as popular elections and constitution-writing. “Democracy,” Secretary Clinton proclaimed in Egypt yesterday, “is not just about reflecting the will of the majority. It is also about protecting the rights of the minority.” Even better, she added: “Real democracy means that no group or faction or leader can impose their will, their ideology, their religion, their desires on anyone else.”

Exactly. I’ve been a naysayer on the Islamic Democracy Project since the late Nineties, when the Clinton administration tried to turn Yasser Arafat into James Madison, and since circa 2003-04 when the Bush administration twisted the Bush Doctrine from a roadmap to military victory (“with us or against us”) to a Bridge to Nowhere (the “forward march of freedom”). All along, this has been precisely the point: there is no real democracy until a society accepts the Western democratic principles that Secretary Clinton so eloquently outlined. Democratic culture is the horse that has to go before the popular-election cart. The third-grade elects a class president; that doesn’t make it a democracy.

Here is the problem: Islamic culture is implacably hostile to what Mrs. Clinton correctly says real democracy means. To undo that, if it is even possible, would take decades of rolling the stone up the mountain.