Unfortunately, Americans have a long, depressing history of idealizing foreign political movements. Many followers of Thomas Jefferson fawned over the French Revolution, believing that it was an ideological soul mate of America’s own successful campaign for liberty. It was not until the onset of the Terror and its overtime use of the guillotine that admirers in the United States recoiled in horror.
The attitudes of American policy makers and opinion leaders in the post-Cold War era often replicate the naïve enthusiasm for the French Revolution. And that’s true not only with respect to professed democratic forces in the Middle East.
Before and during the Kosovo war in 1999, politicians and pundits in the United States lionized the Kosovo Liberation Army. Senator Joseph Lieberman gushed: “The United States of America and the Kosovo Liberation Army stand for the same values and principles. Fighting for the KLA is fighting for human rights and American values.” It was an astonishing statement. The KLA was a motley collection of unreconstructed communists, Albanian nationalists, organized crime members, and more than a few Islamic extremists. Lieberman’s paean to a shady foreign revolutionary movement verged on the obscene. Unfortunately, his fondness for the KLA was only slightly greater than that exhibited by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and other Clinton administration officials who were directing Washington’s policies in the Balkans.
The same lack of healthy skepticism was all too apparent in Washington’s response to the so-called color revolutions that erupted during the presidency of George W. Bush. There was special enthusiasm for the Rose Revolution led by Mikheil Saskashvili in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine led by Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko. In April 2005, Bush described the Orange Revolution as “a powerful example of democracy for people around the world,” and asserted that “the ideals of the new Ukraine are the ideals shared by Western civilization.” That praise was relatively restrained, though, compared to his assessment of the achievement in Georgia.
In a May 2005 speech in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, Bush hailed that country’s democrats for creating the template for color revolutions. “Before there was a Purple Revolution in Iraq or an Orange Revolution in Ukraine or a Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, there was a Rose Revolution in Georgia.” Georgians deserved special recognition, he believed. “Your courage is inspiring democratic reformers and sending a message that echoes around the world: Freedom will be the future of every nation and every people on Earth.” Georgia itself was “building a democratic society where the rights of minorities are respected; where a free press flourishes; where a vigorous opposition is welcomed and where unity is achieved through peace.”
But the bloom has been off of the Rose Revolution for a long time. Mounting evidence implicates Saakashvili in political corruption and human rights abuses. Dozens of political opponents languish in his jails. Saakashvili’s administration has brutally suppressed opposition street demonstrations, jailed dozens of political critics, and harassed or even shut down opposition media outlets, including the main television station. Such developments mock the breathless enthusiasm that Americans had for the Rose Revolution
Ukraine’s Orange Revolution did not turn out any better. The “democratic” coalition degenerated into a comic opera rivalry between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, which led to pervasive public disenchantment with both of them. Disgruntled voters spurned them, turning to Viktor Yanukovych, an old-style communist pol whom U.S. officials formerly viewed as a Kremlin stooge. Once again, an American-lauded democratic revolution became a farce and an embarrassment.
U.S. policy makers have a nasty habit of linking America’s reputation and fortunes to sleazy foreign movements and leaders. One would hope that both officials and pundits would learn from these bruising experiences. But the pervasive enthusiasm for the murky “Arab Awakening” suggests that they are slow learners, at best.
Furthermore, whether or not foreign movements are genuinely democratic tells us little about what U.S. foreign policy should be. Even if Mikheil Saakashvili had been the second coming of James Madison, it would have been unwise for the United States to go nose to nose with a nuclear-armed Russia when war broke out in 2008 between that country and Georgia. Washington needs to base its foreign policy on America’s security interests, not wishful thinking about foreign political movements or regimes. It is well past time that our policy makers learned that lesson.
Image by The Egyptian Liberal