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By Stan Crock Once again, President George W. Bush is learning the prescience of the adage that one should be careful what one wishes for. For some months he has been learning it in Iraq. Now he's getting a remedial lesson in Taiwan.
Not since President Woodrow Wilson himself has an Oval Office occupant been as Wilsonian as Bush in seeking the global spread of democracy. But he's getting democracy in spades in Taipei -- and finding it difficult to swallow.
Just as Bush plays to his political base constantly, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian is playing to his core constituents in calling for a referendum that would ask Beijing to pull back its missiles from the coast and reject the use of force against the island. The referendum would be held on the same day, Mar. 20, as the Presidential election and could bring Chen's pro-independence backers out in force.
SMOKING FUSES. However, Bush doesn't like the way domestic politics in that democracy is playing out and has made it clear to Taiwan that the government should shelve the referendum. The President fears that even a cleverly indirect discussion of independence, which the referendum is, would raise China's hackles just when Bush needs Beijing's help on trade and to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. Both could be political dynamite in the U.S. come next November.
Similarly, forces in Iraq, including the ruling Governing Council, are becoming more like unruly democrats -- small "d" -- as they fail to fall in line behind U.S. dictates for a transitional government. Secretary of State Colin Powell is mature enough to say that's actually a healthy sign. On a flight to Marrakesh on Dec. 2, he bordered on the effusive. The dispute between the Iraqi Governing Council and Ayatollah Sistani over future elections, Powell said, showed that "for the first time in decades you can have an open debate about the future of the country." Unfortunately, not everyone in the Administration is as sanguine.
If the Bush team is serious about the proliferation of democracy, though, it better get used to its downside. One reason for supporting democratic regimes is that they are viewed as less likely to go to war with each other. Even if we ignore the fact that Hitler came to power in a democracy and accept the premise as at least generally true, that doesn't mean democracies will always agree with each other. If I recall correctly, a lot of democracies didn't concur with Washington on the invasion of Iraq.
PAROCHIAL PASSIONS. The President says he wants nothing more than robust, vibrant democracies around the globe. If that happens over time, millions of people now suffering great repression will be freer, though possibly no wealthier nor more secure. Iraq has shown that.
However, the result will not necessarily be a meeting of the minds. The consequences, in places like the U.N. Security Council, will be a macrocosm of democracy. Nations will be like individual voters, with their own parochial interests and concerns dictating their votes, and they won't necessarily see eye-to-eye. It may seem to Bush more than he bargained for. But he better get used to the fact that it's exactly what he asked for. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online