Insights Into The World, Bush’s High Goals Reach Low Point

U.S. President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, delivered on Jan. 20, 2005, asserted that “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” and that “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.”

Democracy promotion was also featured as a central component of U.S. security policy in the revised version of the White House’s National Security Strategy issued in March this year. The logic behind this, the administration has argued, is that the deep root cause of terrorism is lack of democracy in the Muslim world, and that fighting terrorism therefore requires promoting democracy.

This elevation of the idealistic goal of promoting democracy as a central component of U.S. foreign policy represented a major shift in the evolution of his Republican administration. An important school of U.S. conservatives are so-called foreign policy realists in the tradition of Henry Kissinger, who downplay human rights and seek engagement with nondemocratic regimes like China.

Another part of the conservative coalition was sharply critical of then U.S. President Bill Clinton’s humanitarian interventions in Haiti, the Balkans and elsewhere during the 1990s on the grounds that U.S. national interests were not directly involved.

As a candidate back in 2000, Bush called for a more humble foreign policy, disparaged nation-building and seemed ready to downplay human rights in his foreign policy. So the emergence of the idealistic agenda of democracy-promotion as the Bush administration’s principal legacy signifies a return to what some have labeled a “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy and a break with the realist conservative tradition.

This policy has been manifest in several respects. Creation of stable democratic regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq–what the White House calls the “forward march of freedom”–is now at the core of the administration’s strategy for fighting terrorism. The administration has also supported elections and criticized human rights abuses on the part of authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the Middle East, including some like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that have been traditional allies of the United States. The United States has pressured Syria, which withdrew its troops from Lebanon, and allocated 75 million dollars in funding for democratic opponents of the clerical regime in Tehran.

Washington has also supported democratic movements around the periphery of Russia like those in Ukraine and Georgia, and Vice President Dick Cheney recently attacked Russian President Vladimir Putin’s slide toward more authoritarian government.

And in East Asia, the United States has been building or strengthening ties with democratic allies and friends, including Japan, Mongolia and Taiwan. In the case of India, this has required legitimating India’s entry into the club of nuclear powers. These countries are seen as potential buffers against the growing power of an authoritarian China, and also reliable allies in the war on terrorism.

The Bush administation’s rhetorical emphasis on human rights and democracy is laudable in many ways. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has argued, support for Arab dictators has not brought stability or peace in the Middle East. It is hard to imagine that, in the long run, modernization or development will occur through the suppression of social demands or the political actors, like today’s Islamists, who make them.

There are, however, a number of important drawbacks to the United States’ current emphasis on democracy. The most obvious one that has been pointed to by many administration critics is that Middle Eastern democracy brings to power radical Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hizbollah in Lebanon, or Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, who are illiberal and strongly opposed to U.S. policies in the region such as support for Israel. U.S. demands for elections or a more open political process invariably lead to charges of hypocrisy as the United States shuns popular Islamist groups. Since the Egyptian and Palestinian elections last winter, the United States has already backed away from its demands for the rapid opening of the political process.

In Eurasia, U.S. strategic interests have led to similar complaints of hypocrisy. Cheney’s attack on Putin occurred at the same time that the administration was welcoming Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev–a leader of highly questionable democratic credentials–to Washington for a state visit. The vice president offered no similar criticisms of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazerbayev–another Central Asian leader with authoritarian tendencies–with whom he met in May. Hypocrisy is an almost inevitable concomitant of foreign policy idealism for a country like the United States, which has interests in energy, stability, allies and trade.

It is not clear, moreover, that the Bush administrations’s strong verbal support for democracy and human rights actually helps to advance these causes around the world. As a result of the Iraq war and other policies, the Bush administration has stimulated an enormous amount of anti-Americanism, and nowhere more so than in the Middle East. Pro-democracy groups are seen as tools of a hated U.S. foreign policy and risk suppression if they get support from Washington. This explains why there have been no takers for the new money allocated to antiregime groups in Iran.

In the past, U.S. influence has more often than not spread through the exercise of soft power, that is, through the positive image of U.S. ideals and institutions around the world. In the Middle East, whatever positive image of U.S. values may once have existed has now been displaced by the scenes of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where three prisoners recently committed suicide. Since the United States has not acted forcefully to close Guantanamo or punish those involved in the abuse scandals, its credibility as a paragon of the rule of law has been seriously compromised.

Indeed, the success of earlier U.S. and international efforts to promote democracy has led a number of authoritarian countries to devise counterstrategies in response. Russia, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Venezuela have all passed laws in recent months forcing foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations to register with the authorities, and have sharply curtailed the inflow of foreign funds to civil society and human rights groups. The Chinese already restrict the activities of civil society groups and have effectively blocked use of the Internet to spread political ideas critical of the regime.

The domestic political idealism has seen backlash as well. Only 13 percent of Democrats, who once supported Clinton’s humanitarian interventions during the 1990s, say they are in favor of promoting democracy now, largely because they associate it with a president they intensely dislike. And much of the conservative Republican base remains uncomfortable with the idea of using U.S. power to promote human rights and democracy if unconnected to U.S. security. So the domestic consensus behind foreign policy idealism is fragile and may start to fracture.

One of the biggest risks over the coming years is that the Bush administration’s overly ambitious efforts to elevate the democracy and human rights agenda will produce both an international and domestic backlash that will make actual gains in this area more difficult to achieve. There is no inevitability to such a reversal: There is a potential centrist consensus in support of a realistic approach to the promotion of democracy, one that is less reliant on force and more willing to work through friends and allies.

Whether the United States can refocus on such a policy will depend on a variety of factors, such as whether the situation in Iraq and the Middle East continues to deteriorate, and the degree of polarization that emerges from the midterm American congressional elections in November. It is a great irony that an administration that has dedicated itself to such high goals may in the end find itself achieving relatively few of them.

Fukuyama is professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author, most recently, of “America at the Crossroads: Democracy, power, and the Neoconservative Legacy.”

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