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August 21, 2007 [LINK / comment]

Fading dreams of democracy

Monday's Washington Post reviewed the state of President Bush's global democratization initiative, concluding that Bush has resigned himself to meager accomplishments in that department. It began by going back to Bush's second inaugural address, at which he made bold, triumphant declarations in support of a global crusade of democracy. After winning the 2004 election, Bush was heavily influenced by the book by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, The Case for Democracy, a hero to many neoconservatives. (Not all of them, though: Hard-boiled cynics like Dick Cheney could care less about pursuing such high-minded values.) Early in 2005, several scholars and experts were invited to the White House. Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, who suggested an emphasis on "ending tyranny" rather than promoting democracy. Bush took some of that advice, but nevertheless came to be regarded as one of the most idealistic, crusading presidents in U.S. history, surpassing even Woodrow Wilson.

For a while, there was actually a lot of progress in democratizing Central Asia and the Middle East, seemingly validating Bush's bold stand, but then things began to stall. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak hardly even bothered to pretend that he would allow greater political freedom, even after First Lady Laura Bush paid a visit. The U.S. government keeps sending Egypt billions of dollars every year, "renting peace" in a dangerous neighborhood. A big turning point came in January 2006, when the terrorist group Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections, which was not supposed to happen according to the orthodox "democratic peace theory." So why don't people in those countries apply the lessons of postwar Germany and Japan, jumping on the bandwagon of democracy and free markets? Most people pin the blame on the nature of Arab and/or Islamic culture, but I would rather not put too much emphasis on that.

As for Bush, the sobering realization that pursuing lofty, idealistic goals may backfire has given rise to a gradual shift toward pragmatism and lowered expectations. The Post article quoted Philip Zelikow, who served as Condoleeza Rice's top adviser for a while (and was my boss at the U.Va. Miller Center), to the effect that Bush's grand strategic goals are not being realized. Joshua Muravchik, a staunch neo-Wilsonian who is a harsh critic of foreign policy realists, blamed the White House's lack of attention to the State Department bureaucracy, where caution and inertia are considered supreme virtues.

I think the main thing that foiled Bush was the inherent reluctance of U.S. government officials to relinquish the power to influence the political situation in Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia -- precisely because U.S. interests demand stability in the short term -- and profits. (Last year Dick Cheney paid a visit to President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, where the ruling party has just won the parliamentary elections, supposedly garnering 88% of the vote. Guess what Kazakhstan exports?) Scholars of democracy stress that one of the inherent virtues that earns citizen trust over time is the very uncertainty of electoral outcomes: When no one can really be sure who will win the next election, the incentives to engage in corruption and oppression of political rivals is diminished. But in terms of foreign policy, we don't want uncertainty overseas; it's bad for investors. American values impel our leaders to stress noble intentions, whereas our interests create enormous pressure to act in selfish, short-sighted ways -- bribing petty dicators, etc. It's a hard habit for a Great Power to break.

It will probably take years for scholars to figure out what really motivated Bush and his top advisers. Based on what we know at present, his democratization push seems to embody a peculiar mixture of naivete and cynicism that is characteristic of political amateurs. No doubt, Bush did oversell the prospects for democracy in the Middle East, but to be fair we should avoid the red herring suggestion that "democracy" means liberal Jeffersonian democracy along the lines we practice (more or less) in the U.S.A. Another false image is the idea that major progress toward consolidating democracy can be made within the space of a few years. A few decades is more like it.

The one thing Bush has in his favor is that none of the Democratic candidates for president would be likely to reverse course on his democracy project, much less abandon it. How could they disavow their own party's name? So, whoever wins the election next year, the United States will probably continue to push for democracy in public declarations, but the actual resources devoted to such an effort will probably decline in relative terms. Ironically, the growing cost of the war in Iraq, which is supposed to serve the interests of democracy and freedom, makes that hard choice almost unavoidable.

Macaca: a year later

It was just over a year ago that former Senator George Allen uttered the infamous "macaca" gaffe at a campaign rally, unwittingly paving the way for the Democrats to retake control of the U.S. Senate. (Blame the media? Not me.) It's funny how such minor events can end up cascading and changing the course of history; in Chaos theory this is called the "Butterfly Effect." Have Republicans learned their lesson about the need to maintain a dignified tone and appearance? Their presidential candidates seem to have done so, refraining from crass pandering thus far, and that is encouraging.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 22 Aug 2007, 12: 02 AM

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