Rich: Good points about U.S. democracy promotion. I would add that “promoting democracy abroad” can mean vastly different things in different contexts. When it meant aiding the Nicaraguan Contras under Reagan, many liberals voiced opposition. When it meant intervening in the Balkans under Clinton, many conservatives were skeptical. Whether or not to back the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine was a relatively easy decision: The U.S. had to lend rhetorical and moral support, but not weapons or troops. (We irked Moscow, but otherwise paid no diplomatic price.) By contrast, championing Iraqi democracy after the fall of Saddam required enormous sacrifices of American blood and treasure. It was during this period that “democracy promotion” became inextricably associated with Iraq — which helped explain why, in a 2007 Pew survey, only 54 percent of Democrats said that “U.S. foreign policy should feature democracy promotion,” compared with 74 percent of Republicans.
Yet the essence of George W. Bush’s much-maligned “freedom agenda” had little to do with military action. In his Second Inaugural, Bush said that U.S.-led democracy promotion “is not primarily the task of arms,” and that “ending tyranny in our world” (the audacious goal he set for American policymakers) would require “the concentrated work of generations.” He also proclaimed that “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one,” which was an impossibly idealistic assertion. As NR’s John O’Sullivan noted at the time, the Bush administration had “forged alliances with undemocratic rulers in central Asia and the Middle East to obtain U.S. bases against al Qaeda.” In August 2002, after General Musharraf revised the Pakistani constitution to expand his presidential powers, a reporter asked Bush to comment. “He’s still tight with us on the war against terror,” Bush replied, “and that’s what I appreciate.”
Indeed, outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush was more of a “realist” about democracy promotion than is commonly believed. His vaunted Middle East democracy project peaked in 2005, when Iraq held free elections, Egyptian president-for-life Hosni Mubarak agreed to do the same, Syria was forced to end its occupation of Lebanon, and reformers across the region appeared to be gaining momentum. The London Independent published a headline asking: “Was Bush right after all?” In June 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told an audience at the American University in Cairo: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East — and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”
But several months later, Egypt’s elections were disrupted by government thuggery, and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (an outlawed group) picked up dozens of parliamentary seats. The Mubarak regime soon initiated a new surge of repression. Meanwhile, Hamas won an election in the Palestinian territories, Hezbollah gained strength in Lebanon, and Sunni insurgents bombed the Shiite Golden Dome mosque in Samarra, Iraq, triggering horrific violence. The 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict dealt a further blow to Bush’s freedom agenda. By the time Secretary Rice visited Egypt in January 2007, the administration was much more concerned about stabilizing Iraq and countering Iran than it was about urging the Egyptian government to democratize. As the New York Times reported: “Ms. Rice, who once lectured Egyptians on the need to respect the rule of law, did not address those domestic concerns. Instead, with Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit by her side, she talked about her appreciation for Egypt’s support in the region.”
This history is worth recounting because, after Barack Obama’s recent speech in Cairo and the outbreak of anti-government protests in Iran, democracy promotion is once again at the center of U.S. foreign-policy debates. Obama has thus far been decidedly cautious (critics would say timid) in his approach to the Iranian demonstrations. The president said Wednesday that he does not want “to be seen as meddling” in an Iranian election. But Charles Krauthammer stresses that “our fundamental values demand that America stand with demonstrators opposing a regime that is the antithesis of all we believe.”
Beyond Iran, Obama has shown little appetite for reviving the U.S. democracy push. Yet as Joshua Muravchik observed in a June 2 Wall Street Journal article: “The results of Kuwait’s elections last month — in which Islamists were rebuffed and four women were elected to parliament — will likely reinvigorate the movement for greater democracy in the region that has stalled since the hopeful ‘Arab spring’ of 2005. It also puts pressure on the Obama administration to end its deafening silence on democracy promotion.”
Muravchik noted that the Kuwaiti election outcome “continues a string of defeats for Islamists over the last year and a half from west to east. In September 2007, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, a moderate Islamist group, was widely forecast to be the winner. Its support proved chimerical: It came away with 14% of the seats, trailing secularists. Iraq’s provincial elections this January signaled a turn away from the sectarian religious parties that had dominated earlier pollings.”
Shortly after Muravchik’s column appeared, the pro-American “March 14 Alliance” triumphed over the Hezbollah-led bloc in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections.
No question, democratization can be a messy process. Free elections may elevate radical or illiberal forces whose commitment to genuine democracy is dubious. In recent years, countless people have remarked that “democracy is about more than just elections.” That’s true. But elections matter a great deal. “Political evolution [in the Middle East] will begin when Muslim men and women start voting,” writes former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht. “Osama bin Laden and his more intellectual chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are savagely opposed to democracy among Muslims, especially Iraqi Muslims, because they know what it represents: the end of an ethical order in which their violence makes sense.”
Again: There is no one-size-fits-all approach to democracy promotion. Different circumstances demand different tactics. Certain countries — such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan — present especially thorny challenges. Arguing that democratization should be a key element of U.S. strategy in the Middle East does not oblige one to call for, say, an immediate suspension of American aid to Cairo. In order to be effective, pro-democracy policies must account for the full spectrum of U.S. interests. As Walter Russell Mead put it in NR’s 2005 symposium on the freedom agenda, “no principle, however great and true, will succeed if it is rigidly and mechanistically held and applied. It is perfectly possible to believe in the long-term necessity of liberal society without calling for a plebiscite on the monarchy in Saudi Arabia next week.”