The Democracy Promotion Backlash (and the The Need for a “Third Way”)

Suffice it to say that I knew the backlash had begun, and it was to rage with increasing ferocity. I look back now and wonder if I had seen it coming. Perhaps it was inevitable, for there was too much at stake. When ambition exceeds ability, the results can be disorienting, if not outright destructive. This, I worry, is what happened to our post-9/11 efforts, however halting, to promote democracy in the Arab world. The tipping point was Hamas’s shocking victory in the Palestinian elections. But the doubts regarding the wisdom of an assertive pro-democracy posture had surfaced long before in the wake of a series of substantial Islamist electoral gains in Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon.

The animating force (at least in theory) of the Bush administration’s Mid-east policy is (or was) the radical notion that democracy, by allowing people to express their grievances through a meaningful political process, will defeat the frustration and impotence which give rise to political violence and terrorism. Its admittedly stubborn belief in the transformative power of democracy was, as far as I could tell, the only redeeming characteristic of an administration plagued by incompetence and shortsightedness in nearly every other aspect of domestic and foreign policy.

Unfortunately, because of its destructive policies elsewhere, this novel (and useful) understanding of the relationship between terror and democracy was sullied (in the eyes of many liberals) through guilt by association. More problematic was the inability of the Bush administration to live up to its lofty rhetoric. The gap between what we said and what we did grew only more striking with time. Indeed, President Bush has become the anti-Midas of our time. A good message has been tainted, in some circles irrevocably, by a bad messenger.

But while many liberals, in response to Bush’s heightened Wilsonian appeals, had descended into a curious mix of neo-isolationism and careful Scrowcroftian cynicism, there remained a consensus of sorts in DC political circles that promoting Arab democracy was a worthwhile and urgent concern. It seems like an eternity ago but last November, I wrote on this blog about what I termed “the emerging democratic consensus.” There was, it appeared, an emerging, if reluctant, consensus among both Democrats and Republicans, that there was a causal relationship between lack of democracy and terrorism. We could not win the war on terror without, first, defeating the authoritarian status quo which had poisoned Arab politics and contributed to the rise of religous extremism

There were caveats, of course. Democracy, in the context of the Arab world, has always been a rather complicated affair. Americans may have forgotten what happened in Algeria in 1991. Arabs, one suspects, have not. And so it is as it has always been. We wish to be moral in our foreign policy, but we find ourselves invariably reduced to a raging conflict between the ideals which animate us and the interests which define us. The conflict, in the wake of Hamas’s victory, has intensified. The reassessment has begun. Realism appears ever more realistic. Why promote democracy, they ask, when democracy brings to power those who hate us ? If only it was so simple.

The tide was once in Wilson’s favor. It is no longer. A democratic backlash is underway and we Democrats (or more specifically Wilsonian Democrats, “Liberal Interventionists,” or “Muscular Wilsonians” or whatever else we claim to be) must ask ourselves where we stand. More importantly, the task will fall upon us to articulate a third way between the increasingly discredited neoconservative approach and the ascendant neo-isolationism which is gaining momentum on both the Left and Right.