Egypt’s popular revolution has revived a decades-long debate about the role of democracy and human rights in American foreign policy. For some, the forced departure of Hosni Mubarak affirmed the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush, whose Secretary of State famously declared in Cairo in 2005: “For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East—and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”
But Bush’s cause was closely associated with his Administration’s controversial use of force in Iraq—democracy at the end of a gun, many scorned. Perhaps not coincidentally, at times the Obama Administration has gone out of its way to avoid appearing too insistent in calling on other governments to expand democracy and human rights. In his own Cairo speech, in June 2009, President Obama acknowledged that “there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years…. So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other…. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election”
Critics across the spectrum have complained that Obama is selling America—and all those who suffer oppression—short. The lesson of Egypt, it is said, is simple: “supporting freedom is the best policy of all.”
But is this so? A recent visit to Pakistan, another country where democracy and human rights have taken their lumps of late, and where the U.S. has enormous strategic interests, suggests there are at least three problems with such a prescription.
First, “supporting freedom” does not mean the same thing to all people at all times—or even to the same people at different times. To take a classic example, in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan famously praised as “freedom fighters” the Afghan mujahideen his CIA backed in a war against the Soviets. More recently, some of these same fighters have been among the hard-line Taliban that successive U.S. administrations have targeted in both Afghanistan and Pakistan as “terrorists.” Pakistani civil society representatives are not shy about reminding American interlocutors of their shifting allegiances over time.
Second, the U.S. government often has other interests at stake, some of which may be in tension with democracy and human rights. The Department of State’s 2010 strategic framework for engagement in Pakistan prioritizes “stabilization” as the primary goal. To be sure, the threat of military attacks by “extremist elements” is real, and requires an effective response. Echoing a common refrain, one resident of the conflict-ridden Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan’s northwest complained, “The whole of our area has been taken over by Taliban with the support of our secret services.”
But “stabilization” has frequently served in U.S. diplomatic circles as code for bolstering undemocratic regimes that serve other ends—see Egypt under Mubarak. This pattern should give pause. The most prominent manifestations of the U.S.-backed counter-insurgency strategy in Pakistan—disappearances, prolonged detention, and drone attacks which have resulted in numerous civilian casualties—have engendered broad resentment at what many see as a direct affront to the rule of law.
The challenges of reconciling sometimes competing aims surged to the fore in late January, when an American of much-contested professional identity (he’s been variously called a diplomat, a contractor and a CIA agent) shot and killed two Pakistanis who approached his car at a traffic light. Whatever the facts behind the shooting, Washington’s demand that the American be released from the jurisdiction of Pakistani courts further inflamed a widespread sense of outrage that the government in Islamabad is too beholden to U.S. interests to rule in its people’s name.
A final difficulty with “supporting freedom” is that, even when there is agreement on the goal, it’s hard to know how to get there. The past half century has witnessed a series of unproven attempts to seed democratic institutions and the rule of law in developing countries worldwide. Though democracy has taken hold from Latin America to Eastern Europe, it’s not clear what contribution, if any, donor-supported programs can claim, let alone whether anyone is more certain today about how to foster the growth of democratic culture.
Once again, Pakistan is illustrative. While the U.S. backed General Pervez Musharraf’s military rule for much of the last decade, a group of Pakistani lawyers stood courageously for judicial independence in resisting—and ultimately reversing—the politically-motivated removal of a number of senior judges from their posts. It is striking that in a country where the rule of law has powerful indigenous roots, donors today seem uncertain how to help. Notwithstanding cumulative investments of several hundred million dollars in justice sector reform in recent years, the investigative skills of Pakistani police are poor, torture is endemic, and conviction rates in criminal courts remain abysmally low. And yet, determined to ensure that massive quantities of aid to Pakistan—$7.5 billion are pledged over five years for civilian institutions—yield visible “results,” U.S. officials have perversely cut investments in some of the very areas—such as improving the beleaguered justice system—which, though hard to measure, are essential to fostering accountable government.
Viewed from Pakistan, the debate over Washington’s proper role prompted by the still-unfolding developments in Egypt may be missing the point. Whatever the U.S. does, local actors will often be far more independent, knowledgeable and consequential in influencing outcomes than we assume.
Furthermore, U.S. democracy promotion does not take place in a vacuum. For better or worse, people watch not just what Washington says, but what it does. Observers will attach less weight to American pro-democracy rhetoric where it is seen to be overridden by other interests—whether security, counterterrorism, or access to natural resources.
In short, there are good reasons for the U.S. to support freedom around the world. But the task may be far more daunting than the phrase suggests.