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Dead-end for a doctrine?

Reagan's ideal of 'democracy promotion' blows up in Iraq.

June 08, 2007|James Traub | JAMES TRAUB is the author of "The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power." He is currently writing a book on democracy promotion.

ON JUNE 8, 1982, 25 years ago today, President Reagan gave a speech before the British Parliament in which he described a "democratic revolution" gathering force around the globe. Henceforward, Reagan announced, the United States would seek "to foster the infrastructure of democracy" -- a free press, independent unions, truly representative political parties and the like. Within months, the administration had established the core institutions of "democracy promotion": the National Endowment for Democracy and its affiliate bodies with the Republican and Democratic parties.

After Reagan, the first President Bush paid lip service to democracy promotion, and the Clinton administration incorporated the concept into its vision of a post-Cold War globalized marketplace. And now, under George W. Bush, Reagan's policy, rechristened "the Freedom Agenda," has become the central theme of American foreign policy.

Bush came into office a resolute "realist," opposed to nation-building and other forms of intervention in the internal affairs of states. But 9/11 changed everything. In his second inaugural address, he restated Reagan's proposition, though in more dire, and yet more transcendent, terms. Because the "resentment and tyranny" in which "whole regions of the world" were now immersed had come to breed new forms of violence that "raise a mortal threat" even in "the most defended borders" -- that is, because Islamic fundamentalism endangered American security -- "so it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

Bush administration officials are eager to discuss how they have used diplomatic pressure, foreign aid and the architecture established by Reagan to help nurture democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, in the former Soviet Union and the nascent democratic states of Asia. Iraq, they insist, doesn't count, because the war was fought to eliminate a looming threat rather than to install democracy. That, however, is a technicality. Bush spoke almost rapturously of the democratic transformation of the Middle East that would begin with regime change in Iraq. Baghdad became, willy-nilly, ground zero of the Freedom Agenda.

The effect, of course, has been to reduce the very idea of democracy promotion to a travesty. Who cares that we've prodded Yemen to hold competitive elections when we've turned Iraq into a charnel house?

The Bush administration has managed to discredit whatever foreign policy doctrines it has deployed. And yet whoever becomes president in 2009 is going to have to decide whether some of these policies deserve to be given new life. Democracy promotion is arguably the strongest candidate. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once admitted that Reagan's paeans to liberty offended her own realist sensibilities. But 9/11, she concluded, made realism obsolete. She was absolutely right when she said in Cairo in 2005: "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy ... in the Middle East -- and we achieved neither."

But we can't foster democracy through regime change, and we cannot do much at all as long as many of the citizens we hope to influence fear and despise us.

Can democracy promotion have a second life? As a doctrine, it suffers not only from the taint of Iraq but from our fearful and bellicose national mood. It's much easier right now to persuade Americans to buckle on a helmet and breastplate than to accept the tedious spadework required to reform authoritarian states. Just listen to Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani's scorn for negotiation and his fierce exhortations to go on "the offensive" against our enemies in the Middle East. John McCain is one of the leading advocates in Congress of democracy promotion, but so far he has been reluctant to mark the difference between Giuliani's remorseless fear-mongering and his own more-hopeful outlook.

The Democratic candidates are, of course, even more terrified of sounding weak, so they compensate for their opposition to the Iraq war by rattling every other saber in sight. But different notes are bound to be heard. In an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Barack Obama laments that democracy promotion has come to be associated with "war, torture and forcibly imposed regime change." Obama proposes, first, that we become a better model of a democratic nation, and second, that we "commit to strengthening the pillars of a just society" around the world.

In the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush-the-realist asserted that foreign policy must proceed from "interests" rather than "values." In his second inaugural address, Bush-the-Wilsonian-idealist declared that our values have become our interests. Both formulations are too pat; but he was much closer to right the second time around.

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