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Broke Down Palace

On an average spring afternoon in Bangkok, a tourist who just popped in on his way to a Thai beach resort might not notice anything amiss. Traffic crawls along the choked streets, and mobs of people queue up for sales at the upscale malls in the center of town. On television, commentators argue about politics, and the local papers contain columns that would not be out of place in The Washington Post, hardly the outright propaganda of a neighboring dictatorship like Burma.

But along many of the streets, armed soldiers walk on patrol, and, in front of the Victorian-esque Parliament building, military vehicles and barbed wire prevent access to the grounds. The soldiers have reason to be on alert. Just last month, Thailand, a close U.S. ally and once a vibrant democracy, banned the political party of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, possibly leaving his supporters no choice but to take their grievances into the street. Already, in the eight months since Thailand's military took power in a coup, bringing down Thaksin's own elected-but-increasingly-autocratic reign, Thailand has suffered bombings, small protests, and other signs of instability, including a growing insurgency in its Muslim south that has killed thousands of people. And Thailand's problems put Washington in an uncomfortable vise: In an administration supposedly committed to democracy around the world, what do you do when a the liberal military of a close friend of the United States, overthrows an illiberal democrat?

Thaksin clearly was no Thomas Jefferson. After his first election in 2001, the populist telecommunications tycoon eviscerated Thailand's media. His family's corporation bought the most independent television station and used libel suits and the power of advertising to restrain other media outlets. He also destroyed Thailand's high-powered civil service by appointing cronies to key positions, castrated the independent institutions created by Thailand's constitution, and removed independent-minded, educated bureaucrats like the former governor of the Bank of Thailand. He showed little respect for the workings of democracy and seemed destined to take Thailand in the direction of Malaysia, a more authoritarian neighboring state. Thaksin terrified his enemies by launching a "war on drugs" in which thousands of people across the nation were summarily executed, some with no links to drug trafficking.

Eventually, Thaksin alienated many moderate elites in Bangkok and offended Thailand's revered royal family. When I visited Bangkok in the spring of 2006, thousands of middle- and upper-class Thais had gathered on the city's main green to call for Thaksin's removal, sing songs mocking him, and distribute T-shirts comparing him (wildly) to Hitler. So, last fall, the military stepped in, taking power while Thaksin was visiting the United States. Since then, in some ways the military has created a more liberal atmosphere, allowing greater freedom of the press.

But the military also has proven out of touch with average Thais, many of whom are distressed that the man they voted for was tossed out of power. "In the northeast [one of Thailand's poorer regions] people just look at this as Bangkok elites get what they want, again," one Thai political commentator told me on a recent trip to the country. Indeed, large majorities twice elected Thaksin, and, even in exile, today he still enjoys the support of poor Thais. Since coming to power, the military has tried to cater to the poor by continuing some of Thaksin's populist policies, like guaranteed cheap health care for all.

Yet the army has shown it does not understand popular politics. It has managed the economy poorly, which will hit average Thais in their pocketbooks. It has proven increasingly intolerant, standing by as a court banned Thaksin's party, censoring pro-Thaksin media outlets, and overseeing the writing of a new constitution that could give the military and unelected politicians far more power. The country is "close to sinking," Thailand's beloved king warned last month.

Across the globe, the United States now faces a dilemma. The White House, of course, has declared itself committed to the cause of democracy. And unlike a place like, say, Egypt, where the Bush administration initially pushed for political reform and then backed off, Thailand already was a democracy when it backslid. Thailand's situation is being repeated all over the developing world, due to a modern-day rise in pseudo-authoritarianism which reveals that democratic culture has not taken root as deeply as some thought in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez has closed down independent media outlets and forced foreign companies out of the country; in Russia, Vladimir Putin has tightened controls on the media and independent parties. In Bangladesh, a military regime that took power last year has tried to clean up that nation's notoriously corrupt politics but also has terrified some liberals by large numbers of arrests conducted without any due process.

In Venezuela, the United States learned that tacitly supporting a revolt against an elected pseudo-autocrat can backfire; accused of justifying the 2002 coup against Chávez, Washington had little leverage in Venezuela when he quickly returned to power, and since then Chávez has used Washington as a foil to boost his own popularity. In Russia, the United States has learned that even criticizing an elected pseudo-autocrat can add to his popular appeal. So, in Thailand the Bush administration, assisted by a highly competent Embassy in Bangkok, has walked a fine balance, condemning the coup but doing little to actually downgrade relations with Thailand, such as by cutting off vital U.S.-Thai joint military exercises.

Unfortunately, in many other nations Washington is not equipped to walk this line. Council on Foreign Relations scholar Julia Sweig calls this the "80/20 problem," in which the United States historically relies on English-speaking elites--20 percent of the population--to understand foreign countries. This 20 percent, of course, includes the type of people who would be opposed to Thaksin, and during the cold war it might have made sense to only cultivate the 20 percent. Today, in an era of democratization when that 80 percent matters more, the United States continually is surprised by what the 80 percent supports--like an Islamic party in Turkey, or Chávez, or Thaksin.

If U.S. policy makers enjoy a more in-depth understanding of a country, they could interact more with the "other" 80 percent of populations, including nongovernmental organizations, political activists, advocates for the poor, and religious leaders. This would allow the United States to build relations with the very people who would support a leader like Thaksin, and give Washington more leeway to act whenever opposition builds against a pseudo-autocrat. In Thailand, for example, a long U.S. relationship and outreach to many power centers helps America walk a moderate position. Because the United States has ties among the broader Thai population, it is not perceived today as simply standing on the side of the military and its elite friends, as happened in Venezuela and Turkey. So, if Thailand comes closer to sinking, the United States will at least be prepared to help stop the leaks.

By Joshua Kurlantzick