Who Abandoned Democracy?

by Michael Rubin

Over at the Wonk Room, Matt Duss criticized me for omitting Bush in my criticism of Obama’s tendency to engage dictators. Matt may not be aware that I often criticized the Bush administration for the same (here, for example). It makes sense to criticize President Obama now because, frankly, Obama is commander-in-chief and calls the shots. I realize that Center for American Progress is not allowed outside of its partisan straitjacket, but it does our broader national-security strategy harm when advocacy is based on politics rather than policy.

Matt makes much of a recent RAND study that found Iraq had set back democracy in the Middle East. As I brought up to David Corn in a NPR interview when he tried to cite that same study, it should be remembered that RAND studies are the products of their authors rather than the end-all and be-all of debate. Indeed, many lead authors at RAND make the evidence fit their political conclusions rather than vice versa. (Anyone who has ever heard James Dobbins speaking loudly on his cell phone to journalists while in the Dulles Airport Red Carpet Club knows that.) During the Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Clinton administrations, there was very little progress, let alone effort, in the realm of Middle East democracy. It became a priority after 9/11 for reasons argued by Natan Sharansky. The backsliding during Bush’s second term, which has been embraced by Obama, had more to do with a decision in the White House to take the path of least resistance and let the State Department lead rather than follow policy.

Many officials, journalists, and diplomats may embrace so-called realism, but it is short-sighted to believe that such realism is best for the U.S.’s long-term national security.

UPDATE: Kevin Sullivan over at RealClearPolitics chimes in. I think he may miss the point: Policy should be not merely reactive, but proactive: The core of the democracy debate is about how to change the character of other countries to the point where our decisions become easier and our final policy more advantageous to U.S. policy and security.

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