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'Elections Aren't Democracy'

Monday, January 19, 2009

An excerpt from President-elect Barack Obama's Jan. 15 meeting at The Post.

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Question: To what extent is the promotion of freedom or democracy something that you think should be part of the foreign policy and, if it is a part, how would you do it differently than it has been done in the past eight years?

President-elect Obama: Well, I think it needs to be at a central part of our foreign policy. It is who we are. It is one of our best exports, if it is not exported simply down the barrel of a gun.

And one of the mistakes, I think, [that] has been made over the last eight years, and, by the way, I'm not somebody who discounts the sincerity and worthiness of President Bush's concerns about democracy and human rights, and I think a lot of the ways that he spoke about it were very eloquent, but I think the mistake that was made is drawing an equivalence between democracy and elections.

Elections aren't democracy, as we understand it. They are one facet of a liberal order, as we understand it. And so in a lot of countries, you know, the first question is, if you go back to Roosevelt's four freedoms, the first question is freedom from want and freedom from fear.

If people aren't secure, if people are starving, then elections may or may not address those issues, but they are not a perfect overlay.

And, you know, issues like arbitrary arrest or corruption may or may not be addressed by an election. So I think what we need to be thinking about is, in various countries, and I use my father's home country of Kenya as an example, what we should be spending more time thinking about is, how can we provide them tools so that somebody doesn't get stopped on the street by a police officer and shaken down, or how do we create a system in which you don't have to pay a large bribe in order to get a job or get a phone installed?

And if we ignore those things, then oftentimes an election can just backfire or at least won't deliver for the people the kinds of -- it may raise expectations but not deliver what they're looking for. And, you know, so we will be working with -- you know, one of the things that I have pledged to do in foreign policy is to ramp up our State Department and restore some balance between the civilian and the military side, to -- and right now we have already begun conducting a thorough review of our various aid programs, our democracy programs, how do these all fit together and how do we view it through a lens that it is actually delivering a better life for people on the ground and less obsessed with form, more concerned with substance.

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