If there is one notion emerging from the George W. Bush administration that has been excoriated from the left and the right, it was the effort to democratize tyrannical states. The left viewed this stratagem as a manifestation of arrogance, a form of imperial assertiveness. The right (at least some on the right) characterized democratization as utopianism, an unrealistic exercise in overreaching.
On a strategic level, I agree in large part with both positions. Democratization as an overarching policy goal often subordinates security, national interests, regional concerns, alliances, cultural impulses, and political readiness.
However, on a tactical level democratization is an appropriate position; in fact, a necessary position for advancing American interests and stabilizing various rogue nations. The key, of course, is knowing when and where to apply it.
The idea that democracy could work in the Palestinian territory without the effort to eradicate the corruption of the PLO was misguided. Most people who voted for Hamas did so because it wasn’t the PLO. Similarly, without challenging Syrian dominance in Lebanon, there isn’t any way to forestall Hezbollah political influence, even if it isn’t the dominant parliamentary party at the moment.
While it might make sense to promote democratic reforms in Egypt and disrupt President Hosni Mubarak’s succession plans, doing so might install the Muslim Brotherhood as the major national political force. Hence, democracy could challenge American interests in the world’s largest Arab nation.
These obvious examples point to a policy of selective democratization as a useful foreign policy tactic. Encouraging democratic reform in Saudi Arabia, for example, might well stabilize a nation that could easily be destabilized by extremists, notwithstanding the fact that the House of Saud makes extortion payments so its authority isn’t challenged.
Knowing when and where to apply this tactic is easier said than done. But it should be noted, that the present administration has moved in a direction 180 degrees from the Bush posture. The so-called realist school in which President Barack Obama is a member does not mention democracy or the pursuit of freedom at all. It merely argues we are not in any position to tell others how to govern. Yet our Declaration of Independence suggests we are a light unto others, a model of democratic efficacy. To lose that inspirational voice is to deny a distinctive feature of our nation and to undermine the impulse for democracy worldwide.
Striking the balance isn’t easy, albeit Bush tried until inertia set in. At some point in the second term, democratization became a rhetorical device rather that a policy initiative. Nonetheless, the spirit of democracy, indeed its romance, should be recaptured and applied where it might do some good.
The recent events in Honduras are instructive. When President Manuel Zelaya attempted to usurp authority by extending his term in office beyond existing constitutional limits, he was violating the democratic provisions of his nation. Rather than instinctively suggesting the subsequent military coup was wrong, the Obama administration should have applied a democratic standard by repudiating any effort at dictatorial control. This could have been an interesting test case for democratization, albeit the State Department didn’t see it that way.
Ultimately standing for democracy is the right stance for the United States, most of the time. But it must be judged against a backdrop of many other issues. That, as I see it, is genuine realism in a policy community that has seemingly forgotten what realism is.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of “Decade of Denial” (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and “America's Secular Challenge” (Encounter Books).
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