A Conversation Continued: Debating Democracy

A Conversation Continued: Debating Democracy

Mini Teaser: In the opening round of an exchange on democracy promotion that will continue over the coming weeks, five TNI authors examine themes and questions raised in Paul Saunders's essay.

by Author(s): Thomas CarothersAndrew J. BacevichE. Wayne MerryRobert W. MerryAmitai Etzioni

A Conversation Continued: In the opening round of an exchange on democracy promotion that will continue over the coming weeks,TNI authors examine themes and questions raised in Paul Saunders's essay, " Learning to Appreciate France ", which appeared in the March/April 2007 issue of The National Interest . Tony Smith offers his response here.

The Democracy Crusade Myth
Thomas Carothers

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 certainly 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.

From the start, therefore, the highly public Bush embrace of Arab democracy camouflaged a deeply conflicted policy soul, torn between a continuing need for stability and the newly felt imperative for fundamental change. In the past two years, the desire for stability has fully eclipsed the impulse for change. A series of regional developments-electoral gains by Islamists in Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon, the new U.S. effort to mobilize an Arab alliance to help oppose Iran's growing influence and the deterioration of the political and security situation in Iraq-have combined to cause the administration largely to abandon its pro-democracy push. Whereas in June 2005 when Condoleezza Rice was in Cairo she forthrightly spoke about the United States's interest in Egypt's democratic progress, she never even mentioned democracy or human rights during her trip there in January, despite Egypt's ongoing political crackdown.

If the Bush democracy drive has been only partial even at its epicenter, it has been almost absent from the main pillars of Bush policy toward the rest of the world. To start with, the administration has followed a firmly realist line toward Russia and China, America's two main (at least potential) geostrategic challengers or partners. It has emphasized cooperation with both countries on the many major economic and security areas of common interest while generally downplaying democracy concerns, despite the fact that both those countries have been in a phase of political de-liberalization.

Although the Bush team insists that democracy promotion is an intrinsic element of the War on Terror, the day-to-day imperative of anti-terrorism efforts drives the United States into closer relations with helpful non-democratic governments not just in the Middle East but other places as well, especially in Asia and Africa. The Bush bear hug of Pakistan's dictatorial president Pervez Musharraf, which is a (shaky) fulcrum of the overall War on Terror, is the ultimate realist bargain. Moreover, the War on Terror has entailed a dispiriting and often shocking array of U.S. abuses of the rule of law and human rights of detainees and prisoners abroad, as well as residents and citizens at home. Given these realities, how the Bush team expects the world to see the War on Terror as the pursuit of a "freedom agenda" is mysterious.

Essay Types: Essay