The Democracy Crusade Myth

Although it is unquestionably true that U.S. foreign policy is due for a serious recalibration, the notion that democracy promotion plays a dominant role in Bush policy is a myth.

Editor's note: Speaking in Prague on Tuesday, President Bush said: "The most powerful weapon in the struggle against extremism is not bullets or bombs-it is the universal appeal of freedom. Freedom is the design of our Maker, and the longing of every soul. Freedom is the best way to unleash the creativity and economic potential of a nation. Freedom is the only ordering of a society that leads to justice. And human freedom is the only way to achieve human rights. . . . [T]he United States is committed to the advance of freedom and democracy as the great alternatives to repression and radicalism."

The president specifically mentioned Belarus, Burma, Cuba, North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iran and Syria. In the forthcomingJul./Aug. 2007issue of The National Interest (No. 90), several authors take issue with Bush's freedom agenda. The following is excerpted from Thomas Carothers's contribution, "The Democracy Crusade Myth."

As attention in Washington begins to turn to the likely or desired shape of a post-Bush foreign policy, calls for a return to realism are increasingly heard. A common theme is that the United States should back away from what is often characterized as a reckless Bush crusade to promote democracy around the world. Although it is unquestionably true that U.S. foreign policy is due for a serious recalibration, the notion that democracy promotion plays a dominant role in Bush policy is a myth. Certainly, President Bush has built a gleaming rhetorical edifice around democracy promotion through invocations of a universalist freedom agenda. And many people within the administration have given serious attention to how the United States can do more to advance democracy in the world. Overall, however, the traditional imperatives of U.S. economic and security interests that have long constrained U.S. pro-democratic impulses have persisted. The main lines of Bush policy, with the singular exception of the Iraq intervention, have turned out to be largely realist in practice, with democracy and human rights generally relegated to minor corners.

Consider the Middle East, the epicenter of the putative Bush democracy drive. Given its extraordinary transformative ambitions, the Iraq intervention can scarcely be called realist. Yet neither, however, is the president's continual characterization of it as a democratizing mission very persuasive. The administration's democratic bona fides in Iraq were undercut from the start by the fact that the U.S. decision to intervene was primarily driven by a jumble of security motives, including the desire to strike another (after Afghanistan) post-September 11 blow to impress the world with America's determination, as well as genuine concern about Saddam Hussein's presumed quest for WMD. The democracy rationale took on paramount importance only in the months after the invasion, as the other rationales dropped away. The presence of other potential U.S. interests-such as access to Iraqi oil and the chance to establish long-term military bases in Iraq-has further vitiated the credibility of the administration's professions of democratic intention. So too has the administration's persistent unwillingness to commit the resources necessary to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq.

The Bush push for democracy in the rest of the Arab world is halfhearted at best and already receding. In the wake of September 11, the idea of a sweeping democratic transformation of the Middle East appealed strongly to Washington as a means of eliminating the root causes of Islamic radicalism. In a sharp break from the past, President Bush began speaking out forcefully about both the possibility and importance of Arab democracy. The administration did take some modest measures to back up this ringing rhetoric-jawboning Arab autocrats about political reform, establishing a regional pro-reform aid initiative (the Middle East Partnership Initiative, MEPI) and rewarding reformers with economic carrots, such as the free-trade agreement with Morocco.

Even at its peak in 2004-2005, this push for change among America's autocratic friends in the region was nonetheless relatively weak. The jawboning had no real teeth, the aid initiatives were lightly funded and unassertive (MEPI's annual funding has never exceeded $100 million; the administration's current request to Congress for MEPI is $40 million) and the economic incentives modest. Although the idea of a democratic transformation of the Middle East did engage President Bush and some of his team, the stubborn fact remained that the United States continued to need close ties with its autocratic Arab allies for a host of reasons. Furthermore, these reasons were only intensifying-the stepped-up anti-terrorism campaign necessitated even closer cooperation with Arab security and intelligence services, the rising price of oil impelled even greater deference to energy-rich regimes and so forth. In addition, the newfound U.S. interest in Arab democracy sat uneasily next to the concern among many U.S. policymakers and political observers that rapid democratic change in the region would bring to power Islamist forces hostile to the United States.