Debating Democracy: A Reply to Matt Duss

by Michael Rubin

Continuing a debate about democratization, Matt Duss asks:

I would ask Michael, though, what he thinks makes people more cynical about America: Recognizing that we need to deal with unsavory regimes sometimes, and then trying to deal with those regimes, as Obama has done? Or doing what Bush did, deliver a lot of high-flying speeches against tyranny, while at the same time delivering people to those same tyrants to be interrogated and tortured?

Short answer: Cynicism is born when rhetoric does not match the reality, and, alas, that is a foreign-policy fault across administrations. The problem with democratization as Obama and the State Department appear to understand it is that it’s always easy to find a reason in the here and now to avoid pursuing the long-term pressure necessary for reform. (The same could have been said of Clinton and George H. W. Bush.)

Duss is certainly right that my criticism of Bush in his second term revolves mostly around his forfeiture of the fight against a rebellious State Department and intelligence bureaucracy. Indeed, I’d argue that the Freedom House data (.xls, hit the Middle East and North Africa tab at the bottom) that Duss cites supports this, and suggests stasis during the Clinton years. The Bush years can be summed up: Two steps forward, one step back.

Certainly neither Bush nor Obama could be called consistent. But Bush seemed to have a better sense of timing, of when to be silent and when to speak up. Obama sometimes has a tin ear, whether with regard to Georgia at the height of the Russian invasion or Iran during its protests. And, simply put, speaking to the State Department today, it seems as if there no longer is any enthusiasm for democratization as an object. Indeed, Secretary of State Clinton often speaks of the Three D’sdefense, development, and diplomacy — with democracy noticeably absent.

Minor quibble, and Matt knows better: Rendition did not begin nor will it likely end with George W. Bush.  The difference was that there was considerably more enthusiasm for shining a light on intelligence tradecraft under Bush than under either Clinton or Obama. However, that’s another debate — and one already well-worn.

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