Following up on Rieff’s article on democracy promotion and humanitarian intervention, I looked at Rosa Brooks’ earlier argument for democracy promotion that he was criticizing. Her argument went awry here:
But a funny thing happened on the way to history’s dustbin. The Arab world woke up. In Tunisia, then Egypt, then Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, crowds of protesters took to the streets to speak out against autocracy and repression—and amidst the cacophony, “Democracy!” became a powerful rallying cry.
Taken by surprise, the Obama Administration backpedaled rapidly, insisting that the United States’ support for democracy abroad had been unwavering. “It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy,” declared President Obama on May 19.
But even with this new surge of rhetorical support for democracy, the Administration remained cautious. The White House response to events in the region seemed always a beat behind, and while we sent fighter jets to Libya, we contented ourselves with handwringing over Bahrain and Syria.
Put another way, U.S.-led democracy promotion had essentially nothing to do with the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Near East over the last year and a half. They didn’t happen because of U.S. support, and those that succeeded at all did so despite the disastrous legacy of the previous decade’s “freedom agenda.” The success of local protest movements in some countries was proof that natural, indigenous political change was the right way for these nations to realize representative and accountable political systems.
In response to preposterous hawkish attempts to claim that the Iraq war was the cause of these uprisings, quite a few people have been quick to point out that actual U.S.-led democracy promotion delayed and undermined local democratic movements by associating the cause of political change with the destruction and mayhem of the invasion of Iraq. Nothing did more to discredit the cause of democratization in the region than the policies justified in the name of democracy promotion. The remarkable thing about Brooks’ argument is that she knows this, she refers to it, but it doesn’t make her skeptical about the wisdom or desirability of democracy promotion as a U.S. policy.