The following opinion piece appeared in the International Herald Tribune. Joseph T. Siegle researches global trends in democracy at the University of Maryland. Morton H. Halperin is the U.S. Advocacy Director for the Open Society Institute. They are co-authors of The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace.
As at his inaugural, the theme of freedom again figured prominently in George W. Bush’s State of the Union address. This would seem to confirm the seismic transformation of an administration that arrived in Washington four years ago mocking the very notion of democracy promotion. Neoconservatives are delighted, while traditional security conservatives scoff at the idea of democracy as a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy.
The reactions of both camps are misplaced, however. For despite his stirring rhetoric, the reality is that Bush simply doesn’t have a very strong record of promoting democracy abroad.
During his first term, Bush praised the democratic visions of Vladimir Putin and Pervez Musharraf as they systematically smothered the embers of freedom in Russia and Pakistan. This is the president that stood shoulder to shoulder with the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, while publicly condemning a proposed referendum on independence in democratic Taiwan.
This is the same administration that was the only government in the Western Hemisphere to recognize the ill-fated coup attempt against the democratically elected leader in Venezuela. Despite its democratic pronouncements, this administration remains a steadfast supporter of entrenched autocrats in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Central Asia.
Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, places that Bush’s supporters point to as examples of his commitment to advancing freedom, the evidence is dubious.
Leaving aside the irony of invading a country to “bring it democracy,” Bush nodded to the Department of Defense to take the lead in the democracy-building effort in Iraq. Their plan: Install Ahmed Chalabi as the new Iraqi leader. The U.S. has been scrambling in Iraq ever since.
Coming nearly two years after the invasion, the recent elections are an important step toward creating a degree of legitimacy within Iraq’s political leadership. This accomplishment, however, has come at considerable cost in lives lost, stability and American prestige—costs that could have been mitigated if a commitment to prepare for a democratic transition had been made a priority.
In Afghanistan, the Bush administration sided with the country’s powerful warlords at the expense of the new central government—a choice deemed necessary to track down the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership. And despite the elections there, insecurity remains the predominate theme in the country.
The essential point is that establishing democracy was not the rationale for these military interventions. It has always been an after-the-fact justification for other priorities—capturing Osama bin Laden, destroying Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and eliminating Saddam Hussein’s control of weapons of mass destruction.
Rather than a democratic idealist, Bush is better described as someone who has co-opted the language of democracy while pursuing business-as-usual policies. While politically expedient, this confounding strategy carries considerable risks.
First, it distracts Americans from addressing some of the very priorities Bush trumpeted in his speech. Peace and prosperity elsewhere in the world do contribute to U.S. security. Democratic governments do a far better job, on average, of generating improved standards of living and avoiding conflict.
Second, promulgating the rhetoric without pursuing the requisite policies sets a democracy-based foreign policy up for failure. Little is done to advance democracy around the world, while “realists,” like former U.S. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, can blame the shortcomings of Bush’s foreign policy on the ideological weaknesses of a democracy-oriented approach. Heads, realists win; tails, democracy promoters lose.
Third, the disconnect between rhetoric and reality has stirred up deep suspicions of established means of democracy promotion. The credibility of efforts to strengthen the capacity of reformers and build real democratic institutions are undermined. Instead, American democracy promotion has come to be defined as the invasion of Iraq. And the lawlessness, the destruction, the emergence of terrorism and the foreign occupation that are associated with this package are a tough sell for democratic reformers in the Arab world or elsewhere.
Fourth, hollow oratory only corrodes perceptions of U.S. credibility in pursuit of its principles. The effect is to weaken the United States’ ability to lead in its strategic aim of shaping global norms of democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, non-proliferation of illicit weaponry and the illegitimacy of terrorism.
Promoting democracy means more than basking in the glow of American idealism. It requires consistently backing, in word and deed, those who are fighting to see it realized.
Better not to say anything than to make idealistic pronouncements that have no bearing on U.S. actions. Otherwise, democracy promotion will come to be understood as American opportunism rather than a genuine desire to see more of the world’s citizens gain control over their destiny. America’s credibility is a precious commodity. Americans wear it out at their own peril.
Copyright © 2005 by the International Herald Tribune (IHT). Reprinted with permission.