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The Dangers of Democracy Promotion

But democracy promotion has also been unfairly discredited by the invasion of Iraq, a decision too often remembered as nothing more than a foolish “war for democracy” that went predictably wrong. The subsequent failure of Iraq to metamorphose overnight into the Switzerland of the Middle East is cited as an example of why democracy should never be pushed or promoted. This silly argument has had a strong echo: Since becoming president, Barack Obama has shied away from the word democracy in foreign contexts — he prefers “our common security and prosperity” — as if it might be some dangerous Bushism. ~Anne Applebaum

Applebaum is attacking the wrong “silly argument.” The silliest argument was the one made by war advocates who insisted that democratization would contribute to regional stability on the bizarre assumption that democracies are inherently more peaceful. That certainly hasn’t happened, and I’m not referring just to the countries that went through “color” revolutions and U.S. wars of “liberation.” Thailand, Kenya and Ivory Coast are among the countries in the last decade that have suffered tremendous upheaval as a result of tensions heightened and exaggerated by democratic politics. Another silly argument that war supporters made on a fairly regular basis was that a democratic Iraq would necessarily be relatively pro-Western. As it has turned out, Iraq has quite naturally come under increasing Iranian influence and has become more sympathetic to Iran than it ever was in the past. All things considered, that may not be such a bad outcome, but it flatly contradicts what most of the war supporters and democracy promoters said would happen. Fans of democracy promotion seem to have an unusually bad understanding of what democratization would actually mean in most other parts of the world, and so it is fortunate that we seem to have an administration that is suitably more wary of the idea.

It’s true that the Bush administration’s rhetoric of liberation and democracy promotion was mainly an afterthought when it came to Iraq. It was something the administration threw in to win over skeptics that doubted the wisdom of preventive war and questioned the claims about WMDs, and it only became a centerpiece of Iraq policy when the claims that led us into the war were shown to be false. It’s also true that it is fairly ridiculous to treat the liberty-subverting, Constitution-trampling, executive power-worshipping Bush administration as if it were some band of true believing zealots for freedom and popular participatory politics. There is some mania among Wilsonian idealists that requires attacking the things at home that we are supposed to be exporting elsewhere. Nonetheless, it’s equally true that many advocates of democracy promotion jumped on the Iraq war bandwagon as a result. The Iraq war doesn’t necessarily discredit any and all democracy promotion, but it is a cautionary tale of how the government can invoke freedom and democracy to advance and sell completely appalling policies. (Mind you, it isn’t just that Iraq hasn’t become Switzerland, which was never going to happen, but that its political institutions haven’t even risen to the level of Lebanon’s.)

One danger of making democracy promotion an important priority of U.S. policy or even of official rhetoric is that it becomes an ideological slogan entirely detached from the substance of fostering a more liberal and participatory political order. In that way, Bakiyev’s coup against Akayev could be dressed up in the West as an example of “people power” triumphing over authoritarianism. A run-of-the-mill power struggle in Kyrgyzstan was treated as part of the global democratic revolution Bush had insanely lauded in his Second Inaugural, and Kyrgyzstan is still bleeding and suffering today partly as a result of the genuinely stupid, unfocused enthusiasm for spreading democracy that the government could use to cloak its agenda of reducing Russian influence in the former Soviet Union. Enthusiasm for democracy blinded Westerners to the errors and flaws of Saakashvili, and even when he was wrecking his country by escalating an unwinnable war quite a few democratists were still defending him and the “democratically elected government of Georgia” no matter what.

Another danger is that this emphasis on democracy promotion conflates U.S. interests in a region with the aspirations of other peoples to govern themselves democratically when these two may not be complementary. Most enthusiasts for democracy promotion seem rarely to contemplate the possibility of such a conflict between the political goals of democrats in other countries and U.S. policies, and there usually seems to be a casual assumption that American interests and “values” advance in tandem. Much of the sympathy for the Green movement in the U.S. is predicated on two basically false beliefs that most Green movement members want to topple their government and want to adopt policies more amenable to the U.S. Many Western sympathizers with the Green movement would suddenly start singing a very different tune if they understood that neither of these things is true.

At times, as in Iraq, we seem to give no thought as to whether democratization will undermine U.S. interests, because promoting democracy was always a tertiary consideration when we launched our invasion, and at other times we seem to favor only those protest movements that we believe will become reliable supporters of U.S. influence in their region. In practice, democracy promotion gets a bad name because it is used in the most obviously cynical way to justify a policy decision after the fact, or it is used in a highly selective manner to favor only those regime opponents who are willing to become our yes-men. Its fair-weather supporters also contribute to the bad reputation democracy promotion has acquired. Many of the same people who clamed to be so thrilled by the so-called Arab Spring of 2005, the “color” revolutions in the former USSR and purple Iraqi thumbs were completely horrified when more fully mature democratic governments and allies of the United States, such as Japan and Turkey, began pursuing mildy independent courses of action that clashed slightly with current U.S. policies.

The reality is that hegemonists and interventionists don’t really want to promote democracy unless it undermines rival powers’ influence or installs a clique that wants to align its country with the U.S., and that leaves people interested in democracy promotion in its own right in a difficult bind. These people could accept this selective, occasional interest in democratization as better than nothing, or they could insist on opposing the cynics and partisan opportunists who try to co-opt the language of democracy promotion every time they want to use it as political cover for an entirely different agenda. Until they do a better job of distinguishing themselves from the hawks and interventionists who have dragged their cause through the mud, they aren’t going to get a lot of sympathy from the rest of us who have seen how their rhetoric has been used to start wars, stir up instability and foment riot and conflict.

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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