Democracy Promotion Needs a Plan of Action

Matt Yglesias, referring to the failure of the Bush “freedom agenda,” gets it right:

The president gave a speech about the democracy agenda, but he never put a democracy agenda together. In all policy areas, but especially in foreign policy and diplomacy, saying things isn”t the same as changing policies. Like if you want to cut taxes, you can”t just say “let”s cut taxes” you need to submit budget documents, work with members of congress, do some calculations, etc.

Circa early 2005, President Bush”s rhetoric on democracy was wonderful (Michael Gerson is a great speechwriter). But the gap between rhetoric and actual policy was never bridged. I”m a believer in the necessity of “vision,” but a vision that stays merely on the level of sentiment, of something to be wished and hoped for, is a vision that is doomed to fail. A vision, to succeed, needs more than a declaration of intent; it requires follow-through. It requires actionable items. It requires policies. Bush claimed he wished to end tyranny. But how? The “how” of it all was never addressed in any serious way. With that said, where I may disagree with Yglesias is on the presciptive side. He says:

I sometimes think people have unfairly criticized Bush for not “doing something” about autocracy in Pakistan but when it”s not clear what should be done, but that”s just the point it”s not clear what should be done.

Actually, I don”t think it”s nearly as “unclear” as Matt suggests. Democracy promotion is difficult, but on some points (assuming you endorse the objective), it is actually quite clear what should be done. Each year, we give close to 2 billion dollars of economic and military aid to Egypt, one of the most repressive dictatorships in the region. The least we could do, and the least the Bush administration should have done, was move towards making aid to Egypt conditional on political reform. Egypt would have to demonstrate that it is making progress on various indicators, among them respect for opposition rights, protection of civil liberties, freedom to form and join political parties, and judicial independence. This is not asking that much. It”s not asking that Egypt become a democracy tomorrow. It”s simply asking that Egypt, if it would like to continue receiving me and Matt”s tax dollars, has to start making some progress on reform.