Politics & Policy

Democracy and Reality

President Bush's prudent qualifications have been obscured.

President Bush’s inaugural declaration of a foreign policy rooted in spreading liberty has received an early and strong boost from the large turnout in the Iraqi elections. The crude objection to it that the Arabs are either hostile to democracy, or even merely indifferent to it, has been decisively routed by the civic bravery of the Iraqi voters. And the “democracy project” looks consequently more, well, more realistic than it did a week ago.

But when all about you are losing their heads, as Kipling notes, is the very time to keep a cool head yourself. We should therefore turn a cautious eye on the president’s speech. And when we do, we discover that the cool head of Ramesh Ponnuru got it right first time. As he told viewers of CNN’s Capital Gang, George Bush was somewhat too eloquent for his own good.

Many listeners thought they had heard the president announce that it was henceforth the policy of the United States to overthrow tyrants and establish democracy everywhere by return of post. So powerful was this impression that the following day “a senior administration official” was wheeled out to explain that there had been no change in U.S. foreign policy and that the president was not proposing to spread democracy by military force. Mr. Bush similarly qualified himself in a press conference a few days later.

Nor were they “retreating” or reneging. Mr. Bush’s original promise to support democracy abroad had been hedged about with qualifications: It would be the work of several generations, not one administration. It was not primarily a “task of arms.” Freedom could not be imposed on other countries by the U.S. We would merely help them to achieve it. It would inevitably reflect their distinctive traditions and end up looking very different from our own democracy. And so on and so forth.

Alas, these prudent qualifications were obscured by his soaring rhetorical promises to advance liberty and democracy throughout the world. This was, said Mr. Bush, “the urgent requirement of our nation’s security and the calling of our time.” Indeed, the “ultimate goal” of U.S. foreign policy was “ending tyranny in our world.”

Even qualified and delayed, this is quite a goal. As several commentators have pointed out–notably Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations–it may conflict with other U.S. goals, notably recruiting and keeping non-democratic U.S. allies in the war on terror.

This criticism is reasonable and should be borne in mind by policy-makers. But such conflicts can probably be managed. Throughout the Cold War, American presidents combined the rhetoric of freedom and democracy with the realpolitik of maintaining alliances with imperfect democracies (Turkey) and outright dictatorships (Spain, Portugal, South Korea).

President Bush is sometimes unwise enough to condemn this past policy–mainly in the Middle Eastern context–as a bankrupt and amoral strategy. In fact it was entirely justifiable morally as the only practical way of securing the larger victory of liberty against the worldwide assault of Communist totalitarianism.

It worked. America won the Cold War at the modest cost of occasionally sounding hypocritical in such local contexts as the Congo or the Philippines.

And it continues today in the war on terror. Bush has forged alliances with undemocratic rulers in central Asia and the Middle East to obtain U.S. bases against al Qaeda. No doubt the despots would prefer him to talk less about the blessings of liberty. But the concrete benefits they gain from an alliance with the U.S. outweigh any slight embarrassment they might feel. (Besides, in the words of that great amateur strategist Mick Jagger, the despots “don’t embarrass easy.”)

And the end result of this judicious combination of idealistic ends and prudent means is that the U.S. is winning the international war on terror with the cooperation of many governments, some of them dubious.

Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing in the Washington Post, sees a further and more subtle benefit in the presidential rhetoric of liberty: It eventually undermines even our friends among dictators.

Reagan’s ringing endorsement of freedom, for instance, weakened Pinochet and Marcos at home and, when they got into difficulties, restrained even the president from coming to their assistance. Bush similarly found that his libertarian rhetoric had more or less committed him on the side of Ukraine’s “orange revolution” against his anti-terror ally, Russia’s President Putin.

Kagan writes with unusual authority on this topic. As someone who has argued since the early 1990s that U.S. foreign policy should rest on the promotion of democracy, he has a fair claim to being the intellectual inspiration behind the Bush inaugural. Indeed, he believes the speech is and should be the manifesto of a revolutionary democratic U.S. foreign policy.

His argument, however, exhibits two glaring omissions. First, in none of the cases he cites–Ukraine, the Philippines, Chile–was the U.S. called upon to do anything more than advise, encourage, and warn. We did not have to intervene militarily. Second, in all of these cases, the end result of “people power” was a friendly regime perfectly acceptable to the U.S. We had no reason of interest to obstruct the change.

In both circumstances promoting democracy cost relatively little. That has not always been true in the past–and it is unlikely always to be true in the future.

Imagine, for instance, a revolution in Saudi Arabia. Rebels have seized key positions in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dahran, issued a manifesto establishing a Revolutionary Salvation Council, and promised to hold elections within six months. But our intelligence suggests that key figures on the Council are linked to anti-American terror networks.

Do we (a) intervene on their side in the hope of influencing the new regime, (b) intervene the side of the present royal despots, or (c) let events take their course?

If we do (a), then we are true to our democratic rhetoric but we probably replace a pro-American despot with anti-American ones. Both the other options make us look hypocritical. And the third makes us look weak as well. It is almost needless to add that option (c) is the one Jimmy Carter actually chose when the shah of Iran was threatened with the Islamist revolution of 1979 that created the present terrorist state there.

Or take a different kind of tragedy. Imagine a revolt of oppressed Sunni Muslims in Syria who cite the president’s speech as their inspiration and appeal for American intervention. Reports arrive that they are being shot out of hand.

One assumes we would not intervene on behalf of the Syrian despot. But which of the other two options above would we choose?

Almost certainly we would choose to do nothing–or to issue appeals for restraint, which amounts to much the same thing. That at any rate is what we did when the Iraqi Shiites rose up against Saddam Hussein in 1991 in the hope that the U.S. would come to their assistance. As a result the Shiites were slow to trust the U.S. in both the invasion of 2003 and in its political aftermath. Choices have consequences.

Neither the U.S. nor any other country, however idealistic, can be expected to intervene militarily against its own interests or when it has no real interests at stake. It is immoral as well as unrealistic to encourage others to rebel by promises of intervention we cannot keep. And, except in the most extreme cases of genocide, etc., our ideals are too abstract an interest to justify putting the lives of our soldiers at risk–though they may justify lesser forms of influence and diplomatic intervention.

Iraq is a special case. By invading the country, we took on the responsibility of establishing a stable, decent and (if possible) democratic government there. Such a government now looks distinctly possible, and we should therefore remain as long as necessary to ensure it secure establishment.

As the president’s qualifications hinted, however, the U.S. does not intend to intervene militarily elsewhere to advance its democratic agenda. Lesser but still powerful forms of pressure–imposing trade penalties on regimes that jail and torture dissidents, offering a safe haven to despots who agree to go quietly, giving training and technical assistance to free media in authoritarian states that permit some freedoms, and orchestrating international opposition to the more brutal regimes–are likely to be our principal instruments of policy.

Not only are all these ways in which the U.S. can legitimately assist subject peoples to attain greater freedom. In a world of rapid economic liberalization, political openness and instantaneous communications, promoting democracy through such means in eminently realistic. And they are likely to get more support from other advanced powers as examples such as Ukraine show that they work.

Remember, however, that such policies place equal weight on the promise of democracy and the qualification of gradualism.

And in the grammar of diplomacy qualifications are the main point.

John O’Sullivan is the editor of The National Interest and editor at large of National Review. He can be contacted through Benador Associates at www.benadorassociates.com..


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