The Democrats’ Democracy Problem

Democrats today have a problem with democracy. We have lost our voice on the issue of promoting democracy abroad — which means that what was once a core Democratic foreign policy idea is being ceded to the GOP.

In 1995, democracy promotion was one of the three central pillars of President Bill Clinton’s first National Security Strategy. Rereading the document today, with its call for “a more secure world where democracy and free markets know no borders,” I’m struck by how the idea of expanding democracy’s reach permeated official Democratic thinking a decade ago.

No more. Today, it’s hard to say where the Democratic Party stands on the issue of promoting democracy. The party’s 2004 presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry, never spoke directly to the issue. When Senate Democrats issued their March 2006 national security blueprint, entitled “Real Security,” it did not even mention the word democracy. Democratic think tanks in Washington churn out reports criticizing Bush administration policies and laying out Democratic alternatives on various matters, but few if any of them explain how — or whether — we would advance democracy abroad if we again won the White House.

You can look in vain for major legislative initiatives on the issue from Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; you have to strain to hear clear statements from our leading presidential candidates — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards — or even to find a mention of democracy in their campaign Web sites’ foreign policy sections. The party’s leaders have gone quiet in the larger discussion about values, liberty and human rights; they seem to see no broader purpose for U.S. foreign policy other than self-interest and an end to the Iraq war. When democracy activists from around the world (including those from center-left parties) visit Washington, they often find it easier to get the time and attention of Republican senators than of their Democratic counterparts. Democracy promotion, they are sometimes told, has become “their” — i.e., the Republicans’ — issue.

Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy must be turning in their graves. Using U.S. power to promote freedom and democracy was central to their foreign policies and legacies. Even Jimmy Carter, a far less successful Democratic president, can be proud of making human rights a major U.S. foreign policy objective. And Bill Clinton’s interventions in the Balkans and drive to expand NATO were all about consolidating democracy in Europe’s eastern half. There was a time, not too long ago, when Democrats were proud of their track record on democracy promotion — and rightly so.

Is the party of Wilson abandoning Wilsonianism? Why have we gone mum on an issue that is so central to our own foreign policy heritage and past triumphs?

Part of the reason is President Bush. In Prague earlier this month, Bush won applause for calling “the advance of freedom and democracy” the “great alternatives to repression and radicalism.” But his conflation of democracy promotion with the invasion of Iraq and the preventive use of military force has given freedom a bad name. The more ardently Bush talks about democratization abroad, the more Democrats seem to scamper in the opposite direction. In the zero-sum partisan world of today’s Washington, the intense dislike of Bush and his Iraq misadventure has led many Democrats to reject their own foreign policy traditions.

Reinforcing this Democratic retreat on democracy has been the uneasy sense that pushing for more openness in some regions, especially the Middle East, may only empower our foes. Hamas won elections in the Palestinian Authority, and other Islamic radicals are eager to emulate their victory at the ballot box. And at home, the rise of the antiwar movement has amplified Democratic voices dubious about universal liberal values and the use of U.S. power to pursue them.

The net result? The Democratic Party is divided over whether it should return to the Clinton-era principles of liberal internationalism and reapply them to our increasingly dangerous post-9/11 world, or instead embrace a new, more limited form of cold-eyed realism based on a narrower definition of U.S. interests, a preference for stability and an abiding skepticism about whether pursuing democracy is a luxury we can afford.

It is time to stop blaming Bush for our inability to articulate a true alternative strategy for expanding democracy and human rights. Democracy promotion was a key issue long before Bush emerged on the national stage, and it will remain one long after he has retired to his Crawford ranch. Nothing is stopping us from coming up with our own updated vision of a principled, tough-minded liberal internationalism except our own confusion, cynicism and timidity. Indeed, such a vision is more important than ever. Americans are hungry for something different and inspiring after years of the Bush administration’s bluster and blunders. And such an alternative is central to the task of rebuilding the nation’s image and alliances.

Those who think the Democrats can’t go wrong in 2008 should think again. In the early 1970s, the antiwar movement helped take the United States out of Vietnam and the GOP out of the White House — for one term. It also saddled the Democratic Party with the albatross of an ambivalent attitude toward U.S. purpose and power that has taken decades to overcome. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

What looms above this reversal of principle is Iraq. Democrats who are disgusted with the fruits of Bush’s reckless, values-based foreign policy must avoid the temptation to embrace a heartless, interest-based foreign policy devoid of values. The past few years teach us several lessons — including that some things are true even if George W. Bush says them.

One key lesson is that trying to impose democracy at the point of a gun, without the right preconditions on the ground or a competent plan for the day after, is a recipe for disaster. But let’s not forget the lesson of 9/11, either — that the failure of Arab politics to produce decent, democratic governments helped spawn homicidal opposition movements such as al-Qaeda.

It was also a major error to walk away from Afghanistan after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal, thereby allowing the Taliban and al-Qaeda to seize power. And the cozy deals we have made with authoritarian regimes such as those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia may have looked good at the time, but they wound up fanning the flames of Islamic radicalism and stoking the strategic nightmare we now face.

Democracy promotion is often messy and hard. You need to work with authoritarian governments even as you try to encourage change in their societies; aid sent to democrats abroad can be wasted; elections don’t always produce the results we’d like. Still, the long-term benefits — as we see in Europe today — are worth it. The answer to Bush’s mistakes must be to develop a more realistic and credible democracy-promotion strategy, not to abandon the goal.

Doing so is also smart politics. Democrats won last year’s midterm elections by tapping into the public’s disenchantment over Iraq, corruption and other issues. For the first time in decades, polls show the GOP’s traditional advantage on national security issues evaporating. But this reflects a collapse in the public’s trust of the Republicans, not any particular enthusiasm for the Democrats’ ideas. Large parts of the American public still doubt our core convictions on foreign policy. Pointing out Bush’s failures won’t be enough to win the White House. The American public wants to know what we stand for if it is to entrust us with the ship of state in today’s perilous world.

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Ronald D. Asmus was deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs during the Clinton administration. He is the author of “Opening NATO’s Door: How the Alliance Remade Itself for a New Era.”