Mark Lagon has written an essay in World Affairs Journal that criticizes the administration’s “soft power” failures. Since the administration has pursued an equally militarized foreign policy as its predecessor in most respects and the reputation of the United States in many parts of the world continues to be quite poor, this should not have been a hard case to prove. Amazingly, Lagon chooses administration policy towards Iran, Russia, and Egypt as his prime examples. These are some of the countries where American soft power is most useless (because the U.S. government is deeply distrusted and resented by the vast majority of people there), and Lagon takes the administration to task for failing to make use of it. Along the way, Lagon recycles some very tired arguments.

The first of these is the standard complaint that the administration did not do enough to help the Green movement:

Early and active US backing for a more unified opposition might have buoyed and strengthened the Green opposition and helped it to better take advantage of subsequent divisions in the regime: parliamentarians petitioning to investigate payoffs to millions of people to vote for Ahmadinejad, friction between Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and efforts by the Revolutionary Guard to assert prevalence over politics.

By supporting the opposition in Iran through soft power, the administration would not only have associated the US with the aspirations of the people in the streets of Tehran but also advanced the objective of dislodging a potentially nuclear rogue state.

As I was saying in response to Mitt Romney’s ideas on how to aid the Iranian opposition, critics of administration inaction don’t have very many specific proposals that go beyond “speaking out” in support of the movement. All of this overlooks that the Green movement didn’t and doesn’t want outside “help.” Citing Richard Haass’ support for regime change in Iran is all very well, but it doesn’t follow that a policy is feasible or wise just because a prominent realist favors it. Haass’ argument didn’t make much sense when he made it, and it looks worse in hindsight. It is doubtful that “early and active U.S. backing” of the Green movement would have changed anything, but it is fairly certain that the regime would not have been dislodged (because the Green movement was not seeking regime change), and it is more certain that a change in government would have made no difference in the official Iranian position on its nuclear program. The current Iranian leadership is divided over whether to develop nuclear weapons, and the next government would likely be similarly split. Any new government would resent outside pressure on the nuclear issue, and any new government would be very wary of making any concessions that could be used to discredit it in the eyes of the public.

Lagon seems not to know that Michael McFaul has been one of the main architects of “reset” policy, or if he knows this he fails to appreciate what this means for his criticism. After explaining that McFaul is known for his advocacy for democracy promotion, Lagon quotes McFaul saying that the U.S. should seek to integrate Russia into Western institutions and push for a more democratic Russia, and then he concludes:

But in its haste to “hit the reset button” on bilateral relations, the Obama White House ignored McFaul’s counsel.

More accurately, administration policy towards Russia reflects a lot of McFaul’s advice, but not all of it. Lagon’s problem is that the “reset” did not manage to improve Russia’s legal and political culture, which it was never going to do. McFaul assumes that a “democratic Russia” would be a stabilizing force. That could be true, but a “democratic Russia” isn’t going to cease to be a nationalist one, and it is still going to define Russian national interests in similar ways. Lagon assumes that there is a way for the U.S. to encourage political reform inside Russia by hectoring it over its corruption, arbitrariness, and rights violations, but there is no evidence that this worked when the previous administration tried doing just that.

The section on Egypt may be the weakest of the three. Essentially, the case here is that the administration was too slow to throw its support behind the protesters, and then it didn’t do enough to back the liberal and secular opponents of the constitutional amendments in the referendum earlier this year. One might call critics such as Lagon members of the “Not Enough!” movement. It doesn’t seem to matter to Lagon that the opponents of the referendum were vastly outnumbered, or that the administration was actually remarkably hasty in aligning itself with a protest movement against an allied ruler. Lagon writes:

The “inner Obama” failed to place America squarely behind the relatively weak non-Islamist forces in Egyptian civil society when it would have counted.

As usual, the administration’s efforts were insufficient to…do what exactly? Swing the referendum the other way? Take an ineffectual stand for Egyptian liberalism? Considering how controversial the minimal ties between April 6 movement organizers and American lobbyists have been in Egypt, and considering how widely loathed and distrusted our government is among Egyptians, does anyone seriously believe that placing America “squarely behind” the referendum opponents would have improved their result?

In all three cases, greater U.S. government advocacy on behalf of opposition forces would not have done them any good, and it could very easily have undermined them. It would not have enhanced U.S. soft power to make public displays of American support for these groups, because in each case the domestic opposition was likely to have lost credibility and support in the process. We cannot keep trying to guide and manipulate the politics of other nations at the same time that we claim to respect their self-determination. The problem is not just that the governing authorities would exploit the connection to stoke nationalist sentiments against the opposition, but that the majority of the population in each country is very unlikely to look favorably on political movements that have direct public backing from the U.S. government. One reason for this is the frequent habit democratists have of pretending that democracy promotion will somehow achieve other U.S. policy goals at the expense of other countries’ perceived interests, which gives local nationalists that much more reason to be wary of Western-backed opposition forces. In each country, what the demos wants is very often the opposite of what Western democratists want for them, and promoting democracy in these countries is more likely to harm our preferred reformers by linking the reformers to the U.S. and empowering the majority at their expense.