Building democracy abroad is a key element of American foreign policy -- and a necessary tool in the War on Terror. Which is why last week's elections in far-off Cambodia offer a glimmer of hope to the whole world, especially Iraq.
Not that they were exactly pretty: Cambodia's fourth open elections since 1993 saw the same problems that had plagued the first three -- including violence, intimidation and vote-buying.
But for the 20-plus years before the 1991 Paris Peace Treaty, the nation was torn by war, bloodshed and strife. Last week's National Assembly elections weren't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but they mark a real achievement for a people dealt a very bad hand by recent history.
During the Vietnam War, President Nixon began a secret military campaign in Cambodia to interrupt the movement of supplies and personnel South along the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail and end North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong sanctuary there.
Next came the rise of the Communist Khmer Rouge insurgency and the horrific Cambodian genocide -- the Killing Fields. During their nightmarish 1975-79 rule, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge murdered or starved 2 million Cambodians -- one in every four.
Then, in 1979, the murderous regime picked a fight with its new neighbor, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which invaded Cambodia and occupied it for 10 years. In the ensuing occupation, thousands starved or fled to overflowing refugee camps in Thailand.
The Vietnamese withdrew in 1989; the U.N. peace settlement two years later included open elections. Remarkably, 90 percent of eligible Cambodians voted in the 1993 U.N.-supervised polling. And with each succeeding election, campaigning and voting have grown better organized and less violent, although vote buying and intimidation is still common. Political violence is down but persists.
Should Americans care about the health of democracy in Cambodia? Absolutely. Democracies bring peace and stability to a region and hope to its people. For instance, in mainland Southeast Asia, there are far too few democracies. (Thailand is the other.) A brutal military junta rules Burma, while repressive Communist regimes control Laos and Vietnam. A successful transition to democracy in Cambodia would serve as a beacon of freedom to its authoritarian neighbors. (Just as Iraq will serve as a democratic linchpin in the Middle East.)
The trouble with democracy is that it takes time. Once the seed is planted, it must be nourished and protected. Along the way, there will be fits and starts and troubles. As in our own experience: American democracy didn't start out perfect -- it still isn't. But we try to make it a little better everyday. We have seen this in Cambodia and we will see it in Iraq.
Growing democracy is a public and private partnership. The government must develop a constitution, ensure stability and guarantee the necessary freedoms for democracy to flourish. Groups that push for democracy in the trenches overseas, such as America's International Republican Institute (IRI), are critical to moving the ball forward in places like Cambodia. They have helped advance democracy against tremendous challenges there -- including strong man/Prime Minister Hun Sen. And they'll do the same in Iraq once they get the go-ahead.
In light of Cambodia's blood-soaked past, its gains toward full democracy is a significant encouragement to others, including Iraq. In the depths of despair, it is hard for the Iraqi people -- as it was for the Cambodians -- to envision a better future. But as the Cambodian experience demonstrates, the human spirit, with the right help, can transcend any challenge in its yearning to be free.
Peter Brookes, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, served as a member of the IRI's election observer team in Cambodia last week.
Origianally appeared in the New York Post