The Democracy Crusade Myth

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.

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.

The War on Terror also, of course, includes the intervention in Afghanistan, which produced a significant democratic opening there. As with Iraq, however, many observers at home and abroad tend to be cautious about the Bush team's claim of democratic purpose in Afghanistan. They are aware that the intervention was driven by security concerns rather than a sudden burning U.S. desire for Afghan democracy, and that the administration is falling short on the necessary commitment to consolidate Afghanistan's new political order due to other preoccupations, Iraq above all.

The administration's international energy policy-centered around the search for dependable access to oil and gas in a context of dramatically raised prices-is also eminently realist. Again as with the War on Terror, it is not just in the Middle East, but in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Africa, that the administration has cozied up to useful (i.e. energy-rich) strongmen leaders, giving them a pass on their political shortcomings. Vice President Cheney's unalloyed praise for Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in his 2006 visit to Astana was a vivid example of this approach.

In short, the components of Bush foreign policy beyond Iraq-its great-power relations, the War on Terror and international energy policy-are all substantially realist endeavors in which democracy and human-rights concerns are minimized for the sake of traditional "hard" economic and security interests. The notion that the universal pursuit of freedom constitutes George Bush's global compass is an enormous illusion.

Of course there is some pro-democracy substance in Bush's foreign policy beyond the partial push for democracy in the Middle East. The administration has exerted pressure for democratic change on several authoritarian regimes, using the bully pulpit, economic sanctions and democracy aid. Such pressure has been directed at various governments-including those of Belarus, Burma and Cuba-where the United States has no countervailing economic or security fish to fry. In several other cases the administration has exerted pressure on governments it views as security threats, such as those of Iran, North Korea and Syria. In such cases, however, whatever pro-democracy interest lies behind such pressures is derivative of a security-driven, regime-change instinct. And over time, need for accommodation with those regimes, again for security reasons, appears to be winning out.