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Neoconservatism and Democracy Promotion

Noah Millman continuesthediscussionaboutneoconservatism. He makes many very good points, and I recommend reading the entire post. I’ll comment on just a few of his observations. Regarding Salam’s complaints about the U.S. role in the 1971 war, Millman writes:

Realistically, he’s not complaining that America didn’t intervene against Pakistan; he’s complaining that America didn’t reduce its level of support for Pakistan in the wake of the crackdown – or use its leverage to induce Pakistan to act with more restraint. Neither action sounds remotely like neoconservatism either in theory or in practice [bold mine-DL]. What they sound most like is the Carter policy in the late stages of the Shah’s reign in Iran – a policy that absolutely can be defended on the merits, but for which I strongly doubt you can find a single neoconservative defender.

I alluded to this in my first post on this subject a few days ago: neoconservatives are great ones for invoking ideals and morality in foreign policy when it involves taking action against non-aligned or hostile states, but most don’t do this when it involves reducing or cutting off support for U.S. clients or allies. Neoconservatives often view foreign threats in terms of great global ideological struggles, and this means that they are more willing than many others to tolerate abusive behavior from clients and allies as long they remain on Washington’s side of the struggle. The odd thing about Salam’s choice of using a Cold War example to support his argument is that neoconservatives were then and still are today likely to be very “taken with treating the world as a chessboard.”

One of the main neoconservative criticisms of Carter was that he put too much pressure on U.S. clients in Iran and Nicaragua in the name of human rights, and they faulted Carter for undermining friendly authoritarian rulers to the detriment of U.S. goals in the Cold War. Today, we hear many of the same arguments that Obama has supposedly been too hard on Egypt’s military rulers, and that he has been too accommodating to Islamist groups there and elsewhere. (This happens to be exactly the wrong criticism of Obama’s Egypt policy, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.) While perhaps as many as two or three neoconservatives have objected to U.S. indulgence of and continued support for the post-coup government in Egypt, most neoconservatives and other hard-liners in the GOP welcomedthe coup, and they have criticized the administration for not being supportive enough of the new dictatorship there. Most certainly don’t wantthe U.S. to cut off aid. This points us to one of the basic contradictions within neoconservatism: it tries to be both moralizing Wilsonianism that pretends that American values and interests advance together and an ideology justifying global hegemony with all of the sordid arrangements with local governments that this entails. Freddie de Boer recently noted just that:

An endlessly adventuring military means a government that must break bread with some of the ugliest governments in the world, for reasons of simple expediency and need.

The point isn’t just that neoconservatives are inconsistent. They are usually unlikely to criticize abuses of power by friendly despots with whom the U.S. potentially has the most influence. They are often among the least likely to demand that the U.S. stop enabling such abuses through continued support for fear of the “signal” this will send to other clients and allies.

Millman addresses neoconservative support for democracy promotion later on in his post:

They want to spread democracy because they believe that democracies will be naturally more aligned with each other and because democracies will be naturally less inclined to undertake expansionist wars that threaten the international system.

Millman thinks that the “insight” behind this ignores the possibility of aggressive democratic states, and he’s right. I would point out how this idea goes awry in practice in a few other ways. The most obvious flaw in this view is that it cannot account for the many democratic states that have historically been non-aligned or have recently sought to pursue more independent foreign policy courses of their own. Many rising democratic powers have no desire to align themselves with the U.S. on a regular basis, and their interests will frequently diverge from those of Western states just as often as the interests of authoritarian states do. Regime character may be significant in special cases, but it doesn’t explain very much and tends to lead the U.S. in the wrong direction in dealing with many other countries. If regime character occasionally helps us understand why a few regimes behave in a certain way, it is more often useless or misleading.

Another problem is that emphasizing the importance of the character of a regime typically leads to advocacy for regime change on the flawed assumption that a more democratic government in Iran or Russia or China would be more accommodating to the U.S. than the current rulers. In most cases, a more democratic regime will be no less intent on securing what it perceives to be national rights, and could even be more aggressive in pursuing similar foreign policy goals. We have also seen how greater democratization in allied and non-aligned countries has made their governments more likely to disagree sharply with the U.S. on major issues than their less democratic predecessors once did. Countries with strong nationalist sentiments such as Iran, Russia, and China would probably elect equally confrontational or possibly even more adversarial leaders than the ones they have now.

Neoconservative advocates of democracy promotion also tend to credit “pro-Western” elected governments for being much more thoroughly democratic than they are, and this often makes them accept those governments’ self-serving claims about their own political progress at face value and to view the opposition to their “pro-Western” friends as agents of rival powers. This underscores that the primary concern is not the successful establishment of a functioning liberal democracy in other countries, but rather ensuring that the “right” leaders have the “correct” foreign policy orientation in order to bring these countries into Washington’s camp.

The most glaring recent example of this was in Georgia, where the first peaceful post-election transfer of power took place two years ago. The neoconservatives’ preferred leader and his allies had seriously abused their power while in office and governed in an increasingly heavy-handed and semi-authoritarian manner. His Western boosters ignored or explained away all of this right up until the end, but that simply blinded them to the extent of popular dissatisfaction with the governing party. As Saakashvili’s party faced electoral defeat from the first effective challenge from the opposition in years, they took as gospel whatever false and slanderous things he told them about his opponents. In practice, neoconservatives don’t seem to think that regime character matters as much as they often claim, because they are mostly indifferent to the authoritarian tendencies of foreign elected leaders as long as those leaders profess to be on “our side.” If an elected leader happens to choose the “wrong” orientation, of course, neoconservatives will insist that he should be thrown out of office right away.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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